I started out solo feeling desperate. I was scared. I needed money for food, shelter, clothing, and the ridiculously expensive car I wanted to buy.
My lust for a fancy car was exacerbated when I was standing in the cold, filling up my Honda Civic in early February near downtown Raleigh.
A lawyer I knew pulled into the service station in his Jaguar. As he filled up his fancy car he mumbled “Still driving one of those?” What a prick.
That story isn’t essential to my point. I tell it because I’m still angry at that guy and I like to vent.
Back to reality…
I had just started my solo career. I had been working alone for nearly two months. I was concerned about cash. I was feeling the pressure, not sleeping well, and worrying about whether leaving my job at a firm had been a good decision.
(Note to readers: Suddenly quitting your job without a plan is stressful and should be avoided if possible. Sadly, I lack impulse control. Storming out is great in your fantasies, but it’s usually impractical. But oh my god, it feels so good for a moment.)
My first year was rocky. I took bad cases that year. I took on clients no one else would take. There was a reason the other lawyers wouldn’t represent these folks. The other lawyers were smarter than me.
I got mired in crap. I had more work and less money than I needed. Crappy cases, on behalf of clients who can’t/won’t pay, are abundant. There’s no magic to staying busy as a new solo operation. You just take on the work you shouldn’t have accepted.
If you stand on the sidewalk with an empty garbage bag and ask people for their trash, they'll fill that bag right up. That was the system I used to manage and market my practice: Arms open, ready to catch people’s trash. It worked like a charm, because that's what I got: trash.
As time passed, I stayed busy with garbage cases. My calendar was full, but my bank account was still empty. Needless to say, the situation was sub-optimal. I needed a change.
Like everyone else, I still had those ongoing needs for food, shelter, clothing (at that point I’d met one of those custom suit Tom James guys), and I still wanted to upgrade my Honda Civic, which was the size of today’s Honda Fit.
It was time to figure out how to fix the problem.
I sat down on a rock (okay, it was a fake leather chair, not a rock – I was trying to cast myself as a deep thinker) and realized that the other lawyers might be onto something.
Maybe it was time to stop taking unsavory clients? Maybe it was time to investigate what else those succesful lawyers were doing as well. I wasn’t sure that I wanted a Jaguar, but I thought I’d look really nice in a Lexus.
That’s when I began work on my list of techniques to find better clients. Over the years, I’ve refined my approach. Today, I’ll pass my ideas along to you so you can free up some time on your calendar and increase the balance in your bank account.
1. Don’t accept castoffs
There's a big difference between referrals you receive because you're the first choice, and castoffs you get from other lawyers who are rejecting those clients and sending them to you.
They're just trying to get this crazy person off the phone. Giving out your number means they can hang up faster.
You’ve probably been advised to ask other lawyers to send you their extra business when they’re too busy. Sounds like good marketing, right?
Maybe that works for someone, somewhere, but in my experience, other lawyers will only send you the crap they don’t want. It’s rare that a lawyer will send you an “A” case when they’re busy. They’ll usually find a way to fit that “A” into the schedule. The same goes for “B” and “C” clients.
Most of the time, they’ll just send you the “D” and “F” clients. That’s reality. Most lawyers want to keep the decent clients. Even if they’re busy, they'll usually find a way to handle it. They are sending you the junk they don't want. Can you blame them?
Learn from the lawyers who are less desperate than you. Look at the characteristics of the clients they send your way. Those characteristics are exactly what you need to send downstream to the next desperate lawyer.
It's probably a bit extreme for me to universally say “Don't accept castoffs.” Once in a while, these clients might have some value for your business. But you should examine castoffs with an extremely skeptical eye.
2. Narrowly define your niche
A big part of getting better clients is narrowly defining your niche. When you go narrow…
You become an expert
You learn things, know things, and thus you attract better clients. These folks recognize you for your knowledge of their problems and the solutions you can provide.
It's difficult, if not impossible, to become an expert until you narrowly define your field of play. It’s possible to learn something well. It’s not possible to learn everything. Once you figure out the scope of your work, you can dig in, drill down, and master that space.
You learn the client types
When you focus on particular types of cases, you become familiar with the types of clients in your niche. You quickly learn what makes for a good client in your practice area and what makes for a poor client. You're able to evaluate potential clients almost instantly and predict the likelihood of keeping them happy.
You can charge premium fees
Higher hourly rates and flat fees are reserved for experts. It's tough to command a premium fee until you're the guru. Once you obtain that status, it becomes a sellers’ market. The client has the problem and you're the solution. You can charge what you wish when you're the expert to whom everyone turns.
You get out of the generalist morass
Because you only accept certain types of work, you're always able to handle the cases you accept. You aren't taking on matters in areas you don't understand well. You're not guessing. You're doing something you know, so you're able to quickly and easily avoid problem situations.
When you define your niche, you’ll feel the stress of picking one type of business over the other because it means giving up options and probably turning away paying clients.
Going narrow is a hard choice. But hard choices make it possible for you to become an expert, pick the right clients, charge premium fees, and dig your way out of the generalist morass.
Picking one path always means foregoing another path. You've been doing it all your of your life and it's a big part of what got you here.
You choose law over medicine, software development, or banking. If you had clung to all of your options, you wouldn’t have achieved any of them. You’ll always feel that sense of loss, but you have to stay focused and keep moving forward.
3. Define the ideal client
Defining your niche is helpful. That exercise will take you a long way toward working with better clients. But you can go further.
When you know the exact type of client you want to work with, you’re more likely to attract that type. This is not the Law of Attraction or anything. This is just common sense.
When you fish for a certain type of fish, you learn where to troll, what bait works best, and when to cast your line. You develop systems, techniques, and tactics to attract that type of fish. The same is true with clients.
When you define your ideal client, you start building a practice designed to bring those clients through the door. You have the right magazines in the waiting area, you use the right words in your advertising, and you say the right things on social media. The ideal client becomes the focus of your actions, activities and effort, so more of that type walk into your office.
Of course, if you define your ideal client as someone who is deeply troubled, anxious, neurotic, and broke, then this approach isn't going to get you better clients. But if you define your ideal client as someone with a problem you can solve, a personality you can manage, and a bank balance that can handle a fair fee, then you're headed in the right direction.
4. Dance with the fear
Seth Godin uses the phrase “dance with the fear” and I love it. He explains that fear doesn't go away if you're doing valuable, interesting work.
If you have high aspirations, fear is something you need to adapt to and learn to live with. As ambitious lawyers, we have to manage fear.
However, fear can't be allowed to drive you toward bad decisions when it comes to selecting clients. You have to learn to look at a bad client, look at your checking account balance, feel the fear, then use your best judgement.
Fear is normal. It’s reasonable. Fear is helpful, sometimes, as a motivating force. It keeps us energized and creative as long as we don’t let it control us. Dance with it, be aware of it, and let it guide you toward smart decisions.
5. Keep your lifestyle in check
Often we accept clients because we need to pay a particular bill incurred in our personal lives. We know that we're taking on work that's going to turn sour, but we've got to pay the mortgage, car loan, student loan, or whatever. Once we've incurred the expense, we're forced to accept work we know we shouldn't.
The key is to avoid the expense before it happens. I really wanted that Lexus, and I acted too quickly. I did lots of stupid things with money and made lots of bad decisions. Those bad decisions cascaded down into making bad client selection decisions. In retrospect, I should have done it differently.
If you hold off on elevating your lifestyle, you won’t be desperate for money all the time. When you're selecting housing, vacations, electronics, clothing, or anything else, be keenly aware of the impact those decisions will have on client selection next week or next month when the bill comes due.
Sometimes it's hard to connect the dots between the new iPhone and the bad client, but the dots are right there if you choose to see them.
6. Don’t pay the bills
Lifestyle decisions are not the only way to keep expenses in check. The practice itself can quickly become expensive as well.
Renting nice office space may mean accepting bad-fit clients. Buying the latest technology may require you to take cases you should turn away. Hiring an associate prematurely will certainly force you to take on clients others would have rejected.
The bulk of law firm expenditures are payroll. That's where things spiral out of control. Our ego and optimism frequently drive us to hire before we're ready.
Often we feel pressure to hire because we've been making bad client selection decisions and we're in that chaotic state of overly full calendars and upset clients calling each day. Hiring seems like the solution when in fact, it often exacerbates the problem.
Better client selection results in higher revenue and collections. Instead of staying busy all day increasing our accounts receivables, we're working to increase our net income.
As you grow, you'll find that keeping your payroll in check is the single most important thing you can do to protect your bottom line and avoid the desperation that forces you to accept the very worst clients.
7. Listen to your gut
Everyone gives this advice. No one takes it, at first.
You'll always be able to look back upon the origin of a disaster client and realize that you saw it coming. It's always crystal clear – after the fact.
For some reason, it seems like we're required to go through the cycle over and over again: (1) See it, (2) feel it, (3) do it anyway, (4) have it blow up, and (5) realize we knew it was coming. Why don't we just take the “listen to your gut” advice initially?
Because we're desperate and we don't trust our intuition.
Well, you should trust your intuition. Listen to your gut. You'll never know how many disasters you averted, but you'll follow the right path. I understand how hard it is to turn away business, but you'll be doing the right thing. You're going to trust your gut later. Why not trust it now and avoid all the anguish the rest of us go through?
8. Don’t sign them up today
Many law firms run much like car dealers. “What can we do to get you to buy the car today?” the salesperson asks. I haven't bought a car in years and I'm thankful. I found the experience incredibly unpleasant.
Car salespeople don't have to deal with the buyer after the sale. Lawyers don't have that luxury. If someone buys from us, we're going to deal with them for quite some time.
Don't rush to sign the client. Give them time to think about it. More importantly, give yourself time to think about it.
Let it sink in, roll it around in your brain, and check your gut. Is this client right for you? Are you right for the client? Will everyone win if you work together on this matter?
We almost always make our worst decisions when we rush needlessly. Take your time. Sometimes things look very different after a good night’s sleep.
9. Amp up your marketing
When clients pick you, you start out at a disadvantage. When you pick them, you're in the driver's seat.
Many years ago, I needed a cardiologist. I started asking around. I found a doctor who sounded perfect. I called and the secretary asked lots of questions. We scheduled a first appointment. I was made to understand that this doctor only accepted “interesting” cases. We'd figure out if I was interesting at the first meeting. I read up on current events, memorized a few jokes, and made sure to have my morning coffee. I was ready to be interesting.
Turns out my idea of interesting was different than his. Thankfully, I was a sufficient medical disaster that I met his criteria. He's still my doctor today after twenty years.
My cardiologist has a position in his market which allows him to pick and choose his patients. He's doing exactly what you need to be doing. His reputation is sufficiently strong that he can afford to turn patients away when they don't meet his strict criteria. You need to be in that position as well.
Your marketing strategy, whether it's networking, public speaking, advertising, content marketing, or whatever, needs to create sufficient demand that you can comfortably turn away potential clients when they don’t meet your criteria. Become known, liked and trusted as a smart, creative, and capable problem solver. In an ideal world, a line will form around the block to enter your office.
Your marketing should create a surplus. Find a message that resonates and use tactics that create a steady flow of leads that produce more than you can handle.
Limit your capacity (by limiting your expenses) so that you're always turning away business. Use your marketing to put yourself in a position to turn away business. That likely means investing more time/money in your marketing than you need to stay afloat. Your goal is to generate more business than you need so you can send your terrible castoffs to some new solo who hasn't read this article.
10. Make happy clients
Clients refer clients like themselves. Good clients know other good clients. Figure out what satisfies your ideal client and deliver in that regard.
Good results are always part of making clients happy. More often than not, however, the result of the legal matter is only a small part of overall client satisfaction. It's easy for us, as lawyers, to get lost in the outcome and forget that the process is equally important for clients.
Client satisfaction is often more connected to the way we deliver the process, than to the actual outcome. Simple things like quick phone call returns and email responses may have a bigger impact than more money in a settlement.
That might be hard to accept, but it's the reality in which we operate with many clients. Their definition of what's important is more important than our definition.
Happy clients go back into the world and spread word about your expertise, talent, skills and abilities. Unhappy clients do the opposite, but they do it even louder.
Making clients happy is essential for long-term success. Figure out what they want and need, then start delivering.
Quality clients are out there
Whether your goals include a better car, a custom suit, or a secure financial future, working with better clients enables you to make those goals happen.
Quality clients are out there. They need help. They want someone like you at their side as they navigate the law and face their challenges.
We all start off desperate. We all make bad decisions. We learn what it takes to steadily move our practices forward. None of what I'm suggesting happens instantly. It never seems fast enough, in fact. But with focus and determination, you'll move in the right direction quickly.
Hopefully the lessons I've learned and pass along here will guide you to your destination even faster.