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March 2018

Seasoned attorneys share secrets to gaining business - within ethical bounds

Being a lawyer means you are part of a profession, a member of the legal community. But being a lawyer is also a business and, for many attorneys, the need to attract clients and develop work is important.

In the past 25 years, the number of lawyers practicing in the United States has grown 67 percent, increasing the competition for clients. But lawyers, unlike other businesses, are limited in the ways they are ethically allowed to recruit clients.

The strategies and rules for lawyer business development was examined at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Vancouver during a program titled “Fishing for Prospects – Ethical Limitations Can Create Muddy Waters in Catching New Clients.” The program, co-sponsored by the Law Practice Division and the Young Lawyers Division, covered ethics rules and related pitfalls when soliciting new clients and advertising your practice.

The rules of professional conduct, U.S. Supreme Court cases and numerous state bar ethics opinions can create an often-unseen myriad of issues when soliciting new clients. A panel of experts was moderated by Andrew Schpak, co-managing partner at Barran Liebman, president of the Multnomah Bar Association, and past chair of the ABA Young Lawyers Division, who led an informative hour-long discussion of the best ways to attract clients and stay within the rules.

The Model Rules of Professional Conduct allow for lawyers to advertise, but there are limitations and issues to consider. The advertising cannot promise results, make claims that cannot be verified, imply that past success will translate to future results, hint at improper influence or include anything misleading. While the penalties for breaking these rules can be severe (up to disbarment), a first infraction usually just results in a letter of warning.

The Model Rules also prevent direct contact with prospective clients. As Schpak points out, “Social media makes it easy to essentially cold-call prospective clients.” The last major Supreme Court ruling on lawyer advertising occurred 23 years ago in Florida Bar v. Went For It, Inc. The major ruling before that (Bates v. Arizona) was in 1977. Since then, the media and technology landscape has changed dramatically. Many lawyers are waiting for the next major ruling that might help clarify the rules as they apply to social media although some states, such as Virginia, have made some efforts to streamline and adjust the guidelines to 21st century technology.

The panel also explored ways to increase your visibility to attract more business. Schpak suggested writing an article on an issue where you have some expertise but may not be widely covered. Panelist Sheena R. Hamilton, an associate with Dowd Bennett LLP in St. Louis, talked about the importance of geography. She said she always tells people she meets that she is from Missouri. She said because of that, she got a referral from another lawyer who had met her a year earlier mainly because she was the only lawyer he knew of in Missouri.

Panelist Edward Rawl, senior counsel at Boeing Co. in Charleston, S.C., stressed the importance of networking. This could include anything from ABA meetings to gatherings with other attorneys who share your specialty area.

All panelists agreed that staying current in your area is critical to success. This includes reading publications and following industry experts on Twitter and other social media. Hamilton suggested sharing information, through sites like Twitter, with others. But all warned about being too casual on social media and cautioned that “You are what you post.” There really is no difference anymore between “professional” and “personal” social media sites and care needs to be taken.

The panel stressed that being strategic with your time devoted to pursuing new business was necessary. Panelist Andrea Hartley, partner and chair of the Bankruptcy and Reorganization Practice Group at Akerman in Miami and past chair of the Law Practice Division, suggested making an individual business plan. She said planning what conferences, speaking engagements, lunches and other events you want to devote your time to in the next six to 12 months helps organize and focus your recruiting skills. Setting small goals and checking off boxes as you achieve them helps keep the process on the front burner throughout the year.

Being strategic about why you are joining a group or who you are getting involved with is also important, said Rawl. Joining something you have a passion for will always produce better results and allow your talent to shine more than joining a group that you do not care about just because you think you should.

Hartley pointed out the time-saving trick of repurposing your work. Turning a speech you gave into a bar journal article gives you twice the exposure without twice the work.

The panel also discussed some tips for making a pitch to a new client. They emphasized doing your homework and knowing who the target is and gearing your pitch to that specific industry. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ pitch,” Rawl said.

Hamilton and Hartley also added that everyone present should speak and that everyone present should have a purpose for being there. The pitch group should be diverse in several ways and that the lawyers who will actually be doing the bulk of the work should also be included.

The panel finished by discussing when and how to make “the ask.” This can, at times, be an uncomfortable moment, but it must be done. Rawl said that it cannot be done too soon and Hartley pointed out that you should not approach it as “asking for business” but more as “offering help with a problem.”

“Ask for small pieces of work and then over-deliver,” Rawl said. “Then you will get more and bigger offers.”

All agreed that the best way to keep a client was to keep them totally informed and up to date. Return phone calls even if it is late or even if you do not have the answer they are seeking. It is important that the client knows you are on it.

The panel summed up, in a pithy bit of advice, the best way to both attract and retain business: “Always make the client’s life easier.”

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