This guest post was written by Michael J. Palumbo. I am so happy Attorney Palumbo reached out to us because he is going to cover a subject nobody wants to discuss – Sales. Yes. That nasty little word no lawyer wants to acknowledge but is critical to the success of your practice. This article is long, hard-hitting and informative. You can read Attorney Palumbo’s bio at the end of the post.
So, you’ve finally “arrived.” You went to law school, passed the bar, got a job toiling away as a glorified apprentice for someone else for a number of years (or maybe not), and finally took the plunge and “hung your own shingle.” Your goal of course is to build a client base that makes the phone ring with qualified, prospective leads. At this point though maybe the bulk of your income is derived from per diem and court assigned work. You could be sharing a suite or even just working from home off of your dining room table. Maybe though you are beyond the incipient stage of your solo or small practice. Perhaps built a web site and spent some money on advertising. Or you network a lot and get direct business through word of mouth.
Whatever your situation, your hustling is, or will, cause your phone to ring with prospective clients. But a funny thing happens on the way from “hello” to you receiving a signed retainer and payment. The prospective client drops off the face of the planet. You don’t understand, because you gave them a detailed consultation on the phone, set up an in person consultation, spoke to them for an hour – no, more than an hour, had great rapport, and then nothing. And you cannot understand why.
The reason is both simple and shameful. It’s not their fault that they did not retain your office, it’s your fault. And it’s your fault for the simple reason that instead of selling them on your service, you were telling them about your service. It’s shameful because you, as a lawyer, have the highest degree of professional sales training and experience that any profession gets. As a lawyer you are trained to advocate, sell and persuade. That’s what we do as lawyers. So you need to employ those same sales skills you were trained on for yourself.
In order to execute on sales skills the first paragon shift you need to make in your mindset is that the minute you realize that the caller is a prospective client that your marketing efforts have (successfully) ceased and the sales process has begun. For you to sell your service you need to realize that you are not there to give friendly advice but you are there to close the deal. That is your job. And there is nothing tawdry or un-lawyerly about that. Hell, we even call trial summation a “closing argument,” i.e., you are there to sell, or “close” the jury on your sales pitch. If it’s good enough to do in open court, it’s good enough to do when a prospective lead calls you.
You have to look at it like this. You are a skilled attorney. They are calling you for something you can do – for a value you can give them. It is your job as an advocate for yourself as well as for them to persuade them to glean the benefits of your knowledge and the services you can provide them. Of course we as lawyers are not selling bagels, so there will come instances for one reason or another that you cannot undertake a case. So you create good will by referring them to someone who can. What I am expressing is that when someone calls you for services that are in your wheelhouse it is your job to sell them on the value you can provide them because it is good for them. They will benefit from it.
Closing a prospect is literally the act of them signing a retainer and paying you. However, closing happens in a sequence. In my business (speeding and traffic ticket defense) clients typically don’t come in for an in person consultation, and in many other practice areas an in person consultation is not required either. For strictly phone only consultations, I have developed this closing sequence:
In the initial phone call we ascertain their concerns about the ticket, qualify the lead (i.e., make sure they have the means to purchase the service), explain the value of our service to them based on their concerns, and then e-mail them the papers, instructions on how to retain and pay us, and links to more info that they can glean online about our firm and services.
Within 24 hours a follow up phone call is placed. This is critical to phone sales. If support staff personnel made the initial consultation call the follow up is ALWAYS made by a lawyer. If a lawyer made the initial consultation then it is made by another lawyer. It does not matter if me as the owner of the business made the initial pitch and my junior rookie associate follows up, or vice versa. What matters is that a second call is made and depending on who is making it it’s just a different pitch. For example, when an associate makes the initial consult and I follow up, I open by saying “I see here that you spoke to Sandy about your speeding ticket and that she explained to you what we can do. I just wanted to say ‘thank you’ as the business owner for calling us, and see if you had other questions.” When an associate follows my initial pitch, they say “I see you spoke to Mr. Palumbo and he sent you our papers. I am Sandy one of the associates and will be working on your case. I just wanted to follow up and see if you had any remaining questions or may have left something out that you think is important.” Of course, if you are as solo as you can possibly be, then you need to make a follow up phone call. The purpose of this call is to ascertain that they received your information, ask if they have any follow up questions, and just to generally express a true interest in representing them.
For most lawyers and legal services there are really two distinct closes: (1) a phone close to get an in person consultation that they actually appear for, and then (2) get them to sign your retainer at the in person consultation. The balance of this article will be regarding just the phone close to get the appointment, and my next article will be about the in person close.
The Phone Close
On the initial call you are not there to hear the prospects stream of consciousness. You are there to direct the conversation. That direction starts with the way you answer your phone. Ditch the “Law Office” or “your name” to “Law Office of Bob Jones, are you a new or existing client.” This forces them to tell you that they are calling on a new matter. It also sets the tone subconsciously to them that you have clients and sell a professional service which they will have to purchase.
Once they tell you that they are a new client you can say something like “well, you’ve got Bob Jones on the phone what is your name please?” They will tell you and then you can say “okay, Mr. Smith, nice to hear from you what is the nature of your legal problem.” Once they tell you then you say “sure, we can help you, and we give a free 10 minute phone consultation let me ask you a few questions.”
Yes, that’s right 10 minutes and not a second more. That is more than enough time to build rapport, qualify the prospect and, if qualified, set an appointment. Regarding client qualification, the phone close is in fact more like a screening / closing than a straight up close. When I say “qualify” the lead that means that they have the means and ability to pay, and that they are also the decision maker. If you do not have someone on the phone that has the means and authority to pull the trigger you are wasting your time.
Of course, this is done subtlety. You don’t just blurt out “can you afford to pay X.” Inasmuch as there is almost no legal issue in which the prospective client’s employment status is not relevant, that is how you reach the issue. Suppose you are a divorce lawyer and you are called by a man that has been served divorce papers. This is how you control the conversation:
Q: “Mr. Smith, so what are your concerns about what is happening to you and getting divorced?”
A: “Well, my kids she told me that I will never see them again, plus I have a business that she works in and she’s called the police on me and wants me out of the house and bla, bla. bla…”
Now the “bla, bla, bla… is all good so long as it is on point, but no matter who you talk to as you know they are going to eventually go off on their stream of consciousness, at which point you cut them off, leveraging your 10 minute time frame:
Q: Mr. Smith, let me stop you right here because we only have 10 minutes. What I think I heard is that you are concerned about losing your kids, your business, and your home over this divorce, plus there seems to be a lot of stress and discord.
A: Yes, I don’t want to lose everything, it happened to my friend and bla, bla, bla…
Q: Mr. Smith, I understand your concerns and those are the exact issues we address here. We will work to make sure you do not lose everything and have joint custody of your kids. As for the stress and fighting, you will see that as we iron the issues out you will begin to feel better. What is happening now is typical in a divorce case and he sooner you retain counsel the faster we can move the case forward, And yes, things for other people go bad but what concerns you is the exact thing that we address, try to avoid, and fight for you at this law firm.
What I just explained may not sound like much, and you may even believe this is what you do. But likely, you don’t because if you did the appointments you make would actually show up. This is a subtle sales technique in which you refrain from telling them what you can do for them, but have them TELL YOU what they want, and then all you are doing is affirming to them that you can provide the services are seeking.
This technique has been proven again and again and it works because subconsciously it is much more believable when someone who is trying to sell you something is not pitching you the benefits, but consulting you on your wants, needs, concerns and desires, and then fits a good or service specifically tailored to suit the client’s needs. In addition, we as lawyers because we know the law tend to presuppose that we know what the client wants. We know within a few sentences what the client has to lose, yet the client either (1) does not know, or (2) maybe he does know but does not care about that. And when they don’t, so long as you consult them on what their real concerns should be and they reject it but want to retain you because of a collateral concern hey, who are you to argue?
I get this all the time in the traffic ticket practice area. I will ask what the charges are and say “okay, what is your main concern with the ticket?” Often I get “well that cop, bla, bla, bla…” Now, suppose as sometimes happens the ticket is very minor, a small fine, and does not trigger an insurance increase. I will say “I know you are frustrated with the cop but I have to tell you other than the fine there is nothing to fight and since my fee is more than the fine and you time is likely more valuable than going to court yourself I recommend just paying it.” Most people are appreciative of my honesty, which we should all be anyhow as lawyers, but some people say “look, I don’t care. I’m not letting that SOB get away with this send me the retainer.” So at that point, who am I to say no? However, if I did not ask them what their main concern was and just launched dismissively into “just pay it” once I heard what the charges were and knew economically that there was no upside to retaining us, I would have lost 2 opportunities: (1) to have them retain us on their issue, and (2) to build rapport and good will in listing to their real complaint, explaining to them why I could not add value, and giving them an analysis as to why and their best course of action.
Turning to a divorce case, suppose you are well versed in family and divorce law in your jurisdiction, and you know that his concerns about losing his children are blown all out of proportion. So you may say:
Q: Mr. Smith, you are not going to lose your children the courts are very sympathetic to father’s rights and it takes a lot to lose custody. Your bigger concern is the equitable distribution of your assets, especially since your spouse works for you. Let me ask you…
A: I don’t know, my fried Robert Huckleberry he also owned a business and got divorced and he lost everything. He lost the kids hardly sees them, his x-wife moved out of state he couldn’t stop it. His kids were great kids now his oldest daughter got arrested for drugs…
Okay, so what Mr. Smith is telling you is that his main concern are his children. We as lawyers are not there in an initial phone consultation to brow beat the lead into submission regarding what they SHOULD BE concerned about. Nor do we need to interrogate Mr. Smith into the underlying facts, circumstances, jurisdiction, etc., of the misfortunes of one Mr. Robert Huckleberry to de-bunk the myth that this happened or if it did that it always happens. Your goal in an initial phone consultation is to qualify and close, the closing being getting an in person office consultation. So it should go like this:
A: Okay Mr. Smith, I understand now that you main concern is your children’s well being and your relationship with them. And that’s a good thing because that’s what the courts look to when deciding custody arrangements. I want you to forget for a minute about your friend because every case is different. Let me explain to you the law. Both the Supreme Court and Family Court can have a say so in custody before, during, and after a divorce. I practice in both courts. The laws that are applied in divorce and situations are under the Domestic Relation’s Law and the Family Court Act. Let me explain to you the goals and policy considerations of the law and how it will apply in your case to ensure that you do not lose your children…
Qualifying the Prospective Client
It is not worth setting up an in person interview with someone whom does not have the means and authority to retain your office. Now technically everyone over the age of 18 has the authority, but that is not the reality. A parent for child, spouse for spouse, an older brother, etc., may be the real decision maker, even if the prospective lead has the means to pay for the service. In addition, if they do not then the person with the purse strings is clearly the main decision maker. Qualifying the lead as to means and ability is really quite simple. Take our divorce scenario. You have got to know a thumbnail sketch of the economics in the initial phone call. If it is clear that they will be unable to pay for the service, you simply state:
Q: Mr. Smith, you just told me that you declared bankruptcy, your home is upside down, the business is not generating a lot of income, and there is marital consumer debit of over $30,000.00 For a divorce lawyer to address the concerns you have made you will have to make a substantial investment. Whom is going to be paying for your legal services?
If he doesn’t have a clear answer for this stop. Just stop. Because you are wasting your time. Your time would be more productive at this point of you went and vacuumed out your car. Simply say: “Mr. Smith, when you know whom is going to pay for the services have them call me and I can explain to them what our office can do for you.” This is what you have to do because it is that person whom is the real decision maker, not Mr. Smith.
Conversely, suppose that Mr. Smith can afford your services. Never assume that there is not a sounding board out there for him. There is. So somewhere along the line you weave into your questioning: “oh, by the way, Mr. Smith, whom besides yourself is going to make the decision to purchase legal services.” He may say “no one,” which is great because now you’ve “got him.” This is because as a delay tactic, especially at the time you are literally asking them for the sale, people say things like “I have to think it over and talk to my friend…” If you previously established that he is the sole decision maker, you can say to him “Mr. Smith, when we spoke on the phone a few days ago I asked you if anyone else was going to share in this decision, and you said no. Now you are telling me that there is someone you have to talk to first. Mr. Smith, can you tell me what your real concern is?”
You see, saying “I have to talk to someone” or other delay tactics people use is not a “no” but an expression of an unarticulated or unexplained concern. It is merely what is called in sales an “objection.” The “I have to talk it over with someone” objection is very powerful for the consumer, because there is no way to figure out the veracity of the objection unless you have previously established that they are the sole decision maker. However, when you have and they make that objection the power swings in your favor, because now you can ask them in a polite, non-embarrassing way what is really on their mind. And unless you find out what their concern is you cannot clear that objection.
If they tell you “yes, my sister Emma, she used to be a paralegal…” that’s fine also. Now you know that Emma has to be directly involved in the process. In other words, do not agree to an in person consultation with a prospect that is going to sound it off someone else unless both come to the in person consultation. Now I know what you are thinking “but, client confidentiality, ethics, bla, bla, bla…” Look, you have no ethical rule to concern yourself with if you have no client. You’re a lawyer, figure it out. Perhaps you can give written notice and a waiver of confidentiality for that meeting. Or better yet, use it to your advantage: “since your sister Emma is here anything we discuss is not confidential. Therefore, I am going to only discuss generalities of what we can do and the economics of the services and not ask you anything specific about your case until after you have retained us and we can consult in private.”
The goal of the phone consultation is to close on getting an in person consultation. Assuming you have a qualified client who has the ability and means to pay, your next step is to close on making the appointment.
Q: Mr. Smith, you told me that you have been served papers and also you have a business. The next step so that we can help you is to take advantage of our free 30 minute office consultation. This way I can review the legal papers you received, explain to you in plain English what it means and the deadlines for making your filings you are under, and I would like to get a better sense of your financial situation. We can make an appointment for next week but in order to get the best value out of your free consultation I would like to review the legal documents and your last year’s tax returns in advance. Let me give you my fax number to send them over, or would scanning and e-mailing be easier for you?
What you are really doing here is giving the prospective client homework and in effect making him do something in advance of committing to coming into your office. This is a huge step to ensuring that the prospective client begins to respect you as a professional as well as will create a quantum of excitement in the prospects mind about meeting you, because he now knows that whether or not he retains you, you are going to have worthwhile information for him when he meets with you. I do not care what practice area you are in always have them send you something to review in advance of the initial consultation. I don’t care what it is or whether you really have to see it. Just by making the prospect go out of his way will make him value your service, and if he can’t even do so much as find a candy store fax machine he’s never going to retain you anyhow. Having them send documents in advance of an initial consultation not only guarantees that they will show, but sets boundaries for when they retain you. You are their lawyer but it is their case, of which they will have responsibilities throughout the process.
So have them agree to send you documents and agree to do it by a certain date, and then set an office meeting a couple of days later: “okay, so you will have those documents to me by tomorrow, so then we could meet, let me see I have a hearing the following day and have to be in Albany the day after that, how about next Thursday…” Also, it is at this time you should weave in payment methods your office accepts: “oh, just so you know, you do not have to pay us with a certified check. We accept personal checks, as well as all major credit cards and PayPal.” Remember, you need to condition them at all points in the process that you are not “legal aid” or here to give “free advice.” A free consultation is telling someone what you can do for them once they hire you; giving free advice is giving your inventory away without compensation, and is no different than a grocer letting someone walk out of his store with a gallon of milk because he is thirsty but has no money.
When you receive the documents acknowledge to them that you did and confirm the date and time of the in person meeting, and if they fail to send the documents cancel the consultation until they do. I would not cancel if I did not have them by the tentatively agreed date, but if you don’t have them a day before the in person meeting call them to re-schedule or cancel. If you left a message and they appear with papers in hand tell them that they did not sent the papers in, that you called / e-mailed, etc., and cancelled, and that you are too busy at that moment to look everything over and meet with them, but if they would like they could leave the papers and you will call them for an interview after you reviewed them. And they have to leave the originals, you are not running around making copies. If they don’t want to then again give them your fax and e-mail and tell them to send them in and you will contact them after the fact for a meeting. This may sound cold, but if it comes to this they do not respect you or your time as a professional, and you cannot convert a prospect into a client unless they respect you and your time as a professional.
Michael J. Palumbo is the founding member of Palumbo & Associates, P.C. Mr. Palumbo has dedicated his practice to serving those who have been issued a speeding or traffic ticket, or a ticket for a criminal offense. He is licensed in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont. Mr. Palumbo did not begin his legal career as a lawyer. Rather, he spent many years as a police officer. Because of this, he has had advanced training and experience in traffic enforcement techniques, radar usage, visual estimation, breathalyzer use, pacing, and field sobriety testing. Read his full bio →
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®.