The first 100 clients don’t come easy.
In fact, I remember many of those first clients now, nearly 30 years later.
Mr. Flowers was my first. I got sworn in on a Friday and started his two-day trial on Monday. We won. Winning was fun. I doubt I’d be practicing family law if it hadn’t been for Mr. Flowers and his custody case. Of course, he has no idea how much he influenced my career.
Representing your first clients is hard. Even harder, however, is finding people who will trust a new lawyer. Clients are often sensible. They don’t want a lawyer who doesn’t know what he’s doing.
Thankfully, back in the day, I had a senior lawyer—Joyce Davis—willing to help me.
She taught me things and sat next to me at my first trial, whispering in my ear. She would loudly whisper “object” in my ear, and I would jump up. “OBJECTION, YOUR HONOR,” I would say.
“State your basis,” the judge said. Of course, I had no idea as to the basis of my objection. She would scrawl a note, and I would act like I knew what I was talking about as I read it out loud.
My first client came to the firm because of Joyce. I didn’t have to convince him to trust me. He already trusted Joyce. She transferred that trust over to me. I was fortunate.
Getting the first clients on your own is much, much harder.
How do you get those first clients? How do you get someone to trust you when you have no track record?
Step 1: Know Your Stuff
The first step is to know what you’re doing. You actually need to know how to do the work. You’ll have a tough time convincing someone to trust you until you know you can trust yourself with the work.
Before you even think about clients, make sure you know how to handle matters that you’re willing to take on. For those attorneys striking out on their own straight out of school, it’s incredibly helpful to have taken advantage of a law school clinical program. I’ve met young lawyers in clinical programs who know their way around minor legal issues better than lawyers who’ve practiced for years.
If you’ve missed out on the clinical experience, or if you’re headed into a different practice area, find a mentor. Hook up with someone you can observe and talk to. Be willing to show your ignorance and ask questions. Worst case, if you can’t convince someone to help you, just stalk senior lawyers at trials. Follow them like a trained killer and watch their every move.
Step 2: Grow Your Network
Do more and get yourself out in the world of lawyers. Observe, wander around, meet people, and ask questions. Attend CLEs. Immerse yourself in the people and places where the work happens. Read old court files, wander into judges’ chambers (most judges can’t stop giving advice), and talk to clerks. Drift around courthouse offices, show up at government agencies, and attend government meetings. Get out and wander around: things will happen.
Step 3: Read, Read, and Read Some More
Then read. Read everything you can find. Read treatises, CLE manuals, handbooks, court files, and appellate briefs. Keep reading until your eyes burn.
The more prepared you are—the more you know how to do the work—the easier it is to convince others to trust you. When you know your stuff, you exude confidence.
Putting the Steps Into Action
Then, how do you get the clients?
They come from hand-to-hand combat. They come one at a time. They come from struggle.
New clients don’t come from anything easy unless you want clients who have crappy cases and can’t afford to pay.
That’s not what most lawyers want to hear. Many want me to say you buy something from someone and magically build a thriving practice. Maybe that’s possible. But I haven’t ever seen it work out the way the lawyer hoped.
Some lawyers try to buy their way to clients. They buy “leads.” I’ve tried that. Unfortunately, every single time I’ve bought a lead, I’ve ended up with a pile of crap. The “clients” are nearly always people with more problems than money. I suppose you can get a client, but I don’t think you can get a decent fee.
Time for a brief rant (here we go again): No offense, but paying someone $75 so I can talk to a poor woman from the sticks who wants to enforce her child support order that has gone unpaid for six years is ridiculous. The first thing she wants to know is whether I have a payment plan (by which she essentially means a nonpayment plan). Of course, that comes after a 47-minute diatribe about the deadbeat with whom she had a child. I’m sympathetic to her cause, and I’m not angry with her. I am, however, angry with the dude who sold her case to me for $75.
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That’s an example of a lead I bought once. $75 for that? Thankfully, I was able to embarrass the lead seller into giving me my money back.
I should have stopped buying leads at that point. One and done would be the logical response. Sadly, I’m not that smart, so I’ve tried several lead-selling services. They all suck. I’m still angry about it.
Now I take my anger out on the sales reps who call me from other services trying to sell more of the same garbage. I’m sure they think I’m severely disturbed.
Getting More Links
Okay, so leads aren’t the answer. What about links? These guys call trying to sell me links to my website from other websites. It works like magic, they say. They spew phrases like “search engine optimization” and “inbound marketing.” They’re full of crap too.
They call daily, offering to get me more traffic by improving my rank on Google. They’ll get me great links, which will improve my rankings. That’ll get me more calls, then more clients, and then, obviously, lots more money.
Not only does that not work, but it also sometimes makes your situation worse. Google has repeatedly penalized sites buying links like those sold by the phone solicitors.
How about directories, phone books, “rising star” listings, airplane magazine ads, and other advertising designed to make your mother proud?
Advertising is fine, but it’s not going to open the floodgates of business overnight. You’re going to have to come up with a bunch of cash to get the ball rolling, and you’re going to be disappointed in the short-term results. It’s the nature of the game, and the ad salespeople are going to tell you that you have to keep running the ads for quite some time to see the results.
Bottom line: There’s no quick fix to getting clients. You’re going to have to work for them if you want good cases with clients who can pay a decent fee.
The Right Way to Build Relationships
You’re going to have to be out in the world, meeting people and building relationships with one person at a time.
Sometimes it really does feel like hand-to-hand combat. One client comes from a partner in a firm where a law school classmate is working. Another comes from the receptionist at your executive suite. A third comes from someone you met in line at McDonald’s. That’s the nature of the game.
You need to get out in person, and you need to do the same online.
- Talk with others about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.
- Bump into people by putting yourself in a target-rich environment.
- Be present at local events and on LinkedIn. Be visible on Facebook and Twitter.
- Post on your blog.
- Go to bar association lunches.
- Show up at Rotary club meetings.
You’re going to need to sell yourself and talk about what you do. Tell your story, and make sure people know you and what you do. This is going to require you to do more than come out of your shell. You’re going to need to shed your shell completely and become a rainbow flying overhead. This is the time to fight for the business because that’s what it takes.
You’ll know you’re on the right track when you’re busy every minute of every day and you’re exhausted and talked out. If it’s wearing you out, then you’re probably doing it right.
How Your Hard Work Will Pay Off
The first 100 clients are hard, hard work, but there’s light at the end of this tunnel. You see, as you find clients, do the work, and make them happy, something magical happens. Things change.
Suddenly, your first clients start talking about you. They mention you to friends and family, they jump in on social media conversations and sing your praises, and they go online and write positive reviews. Those happy clients soon reach critical mass, and the word starts to spread.
Happy clients are the best marketing tactic you can employ. Yes, finding those clients is tough. Making them happy is what you are trained to do, so that’s easier. Then the word spreads, and your business grows without you having to fight for each client and each case.
Many experts say it takes two years before you reach the point where you can downshift from the constant marketing and connecting. Personally, I think it varies by practice area, effort, and energy level. You’ll notice the difference when the phone rings with incoming calls rather then you having to chase down each new client by dialing out.
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You’ll be fine. You’ll grow your business. You’ll get the first 100 clients as long as you’ve set realistic expectations. As long as you gird yourself for the fight, and as long as you expect to fight hand-to-hand for each of those first clients, you’ll have the endurance to stick to what you’re doing and make it work. Don’t expect any handouts. Don’t expect a free lunch.
Reality is difficult. Being realistic and doing the work actually works. The first 100 clients don’t come easy, but with persistent effort, they’ll come. The next 100 will be a whole lot easier.