Asking for the business: IMHO, rarely ethical or effective

In a previous post dealing with the ethical traps in networking, I discussed how “asking for business” can run afoul of the ABA Rules of Professional Conduct.  In this post, I want to discuss how “asking for business” can be ineffective as well as a business development tactic.

Books on sales commonly state that, at a certain stage of the process, any business developer must “ask for the business.”  I’m not so sure that this advice holds true for attorneys.  Before I became an attorney coach, I spent 12 years purchasing legal services as an in-house attorney.  I personally didn’t like being asked for the business.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

The client is smarter than you think

Taking a client to lunch is a time-tested and valuable way to strengthen a relationship.  Most in-house counsel and other business executives accept a lunch invitation because they want to learn more about an outside attorney and the services he or she offers.  They realize that some part of the ritual includes a “sales” component.

I always understood that the attorney would like to be hired, and did not extend the lunch invitation just to hear me brag about my three wonderful children and my plans for the holidays.  However, I always felt slightly offended when the attorney ended the meal with a blatant sales pitch.  Please, be more subtle.  Give the client a little credit.

It makes a client uncomfortable to say “no”

It is the client’s job to maintain a roster of qualified outside counsel.  That is why he or she will usually be willing to meet with you over lunch and learn about your practice.  But the client will not always have an immediate need for your services.  A direct “ask for the business” can make a client uncomfortable – because it never feels good to say “no.”  You want to leave the potential client with a positive feeling, not a bad feeling.

Then what should we talk about?

At some point, you want to steer the lunch conversation to business.  One good approach is to ask, “What do you like and dislike about the lawyers and law firms that you currently work with?”  This opens the door to talk about your own approach.

“What do you like and dislike about your job?” is another good conversation starter.  Respond to their likes with deeper questions.  Respond to their dislikes by being helpful – offering some solutions and contacts.  Remember that networking is not about handing out your card, it is about finding ways to help others.

Finally, find a way to talk about legal problems (preferably problems similar to those faced by your guest) and how you love helping your clients solve these problems.  Passion is important.  Competent lawyers are common; enthusiastic lawyers are not.

Lunch is an effective business development tool.  Use it to share information and build a relationship.  If this is done properly, you can avoid the ethical and social pitfalls inherent in directly “asking for the business.”

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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One comment on “Asking for the business: IMHO, rarely ethical or effective

  • Thank you so much, Roy, for saying that asking for the business can be a big mistake. So many lawyers are uncomfortable with anything resembling sales. When we try to follow advice to ask for the business, most of us handle it clumsily. As you pointed out, it’s not appropriate to ask for business without first determining that the client has a current need for legal services…a need which is not already being met satisfactorily. I prefer to put the time and energy into relationship building and uncovering needs. Then there may be an opportunity to say, “I have some experience in helping clients with that,” or “Would you like to hear how some of my clients have solved that problem?” Then you have an opportunity to tell a success story.

    That’s more persuasive than an ask, and often leads to more pointed inquiries about your services… initiated by the client. And if it doesn’t turn into new business this time, at least the potential client will still take your calls!

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