How Do You Really Build Your Client Base?

11 Jun 2020

©2020. Published in Landslide, Vol. 12, No. 5, May/June 2020, by the American Bar Association.  Reproduced with permission. 

Traditionally, business development hasn’t played a huge part in intellectual property (IP). Clients found their attorneys through recommendation, reputation, or geography, and, as long as they were looked after, the client would stay with that firm and the relationship would be passed down to the next generation when a partner retired.

Today, things are very different.

Clients are more cost-sensitive than ever (a trend that means many IP firms are now having to tender just to keep their clients) and increasingly aware they can demand more and more value from their attorneys. In addition, as the legal profession has now well and truly woken up to business development, your competitors are almost certainly actively targeting and courting your clients.

And the pressure is just as great internally. Most firms have set themselves ambitious growth targets, and the increased billing expectations being passed on to attorneys to meet those objectives means it’s now vital you put more structure around your marketing and business development. Moreover, if that structure is going to yield the highest return, every attorney needs to be comfortable with what they’ll have to do to make the required contribution.

Admittedly this is where we tend to lose people. The vast majority of the attorneys we’ve worked with over the last 15 years don’t want to market themselves; they didn’t enter the profession to be salespeople, and even if they had, client demands eat up the time they’d need to do it. However, experience has taught us that much of this resistance comes down to attorneys’ perception—or rather misperception—of what business development actually is. It is those misperceptions I’d like to address here.

The first—and, I’d argue, most important—myth to bust is the view that business development is all about winning new clients. It isn’t. It’s about winning new work. We are constantly being told by both our clients and our contacts that around 85 percent of the new work they (or in the case of our contacts, their clients) are winning comes from people they already know.

With that in mind,there are two questions I’d suggest attorneys looking to put together a more effective personal BD plan ask themselves.

1. Who Are My Most Important Clients?

With regard to your clients, “most important” should be looked at in three ways:

- Those you bill the highest (i.e., if they were to walk or even share their work with other firms,they’d leave a tough hole to fill)

- Those who you believe have high growth potential (i.e., they will generate more work as they grow, acquire, or diversify)

- Those who are strategically important to the future of your practice (i.e., those who will allow you to build marketable credentials in specific areas or make introductions to new market entrants and/or influential figures in your key sectors)

 Once you have your shortlist of the clients you want to really invest in (and there will probably only be three or four), put together a very simple one-page plan identifying how and why you plan to see them each quarter.

 Again, this can be a suggestion we often get push-back on. Your clients are too busy to see you, you’re already talking to them on a daily basis when you are working on a case, etc., but are these quality conversations? How much time do you get to talk about their plans and what else they need from you? Do you have an opportunity to find out who else they could put you in touch with?

 Your clients are by far the most likely source of new work so, if you are serious about growing your book of business, they must be your priority. If you’re nervous about asking for time with them, please don’t be. We are continually interviewing our clients’ clients, and the one thing almost everyone tells us is how much value they derive from just having time to chew the fat at their offices or over lunch a few times a year and how they wish their attorney would find more time for those conversations.

If you’d like to read more please email and Doug will email you the PDF of the full article.


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