How law firms can build better business relationships

by Jim Durham /

I define marketing and business development as anything a lawyer or firm does to keep a client’s work, grow work from an existing client, get work from a new client, or enhance the firm’s reputation in a relevant marketplace. This definition can sound complicated, but if you focus primarily on keeping and growing existing clients, you will actually be taking major steps towards attracting new clients and enhancing the firm’s reputation.  Existing clients should be your sales force.  How do you inspire and activate this sales force? It’s not complicated.

When I think about what lawyers should know to be successful, I am reminded of the book, “Simply Better Winning and Keeping Customers By Delivering What Matters Most” (Barwise and Meehan, Harvard business School Press, 2004).  Except in the relatively rare “bet-the-company” cases, clients gravitate to lawyers who tend to be simply better than their competitors in the areas that matter most to them.  It’s not about being the smartest, most famous, best dressed, or even the cheapest. You just need to be better at the things that matter.

  • Do you keep them better informed than other lawyers about the status of their matters?
  • Do you demonstrate a better understanding of their business than other lawyers?
  • Do you make a better effort to control costs?
  • Are we better at being responsive and available to clients?


Your performance in each of these areas need not be profoundly better (although that would be good.). You could modify use of the word “better” in the above list with “simply” or “somewhat” and be more successful.

When the answer is “yes” to the above list of questions (and other similar basic questions), you are on your way to being a fulfilled lawyer with a growing practice.  If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you need to find out.

Some examples of how you can ensure a successful future as a lawyer and rainmaker by tending to the following basic value drivers follow:

1. Communicating clearly, consistently, and regularly

  • Distinguish yourself from other lawyers by always discussing in advance the scope, cost and strategy of the work you are asked to do – and then keep the client informed of actual fees versus budget throughout the matter. Sounds simple, but in client interviews we still here that it is not being done.
  • Manage the client’s work cost-effectively: that means recognizing the difference between “bet-the farm” work (where cost is not a factor), important work (cost is only one of several factors) and routine (“commodity”) work (cost is the only factor). Don’t do work to get your billable hours when a more junior lawyer can do it well enough at less cost. Actively manage work that you have delegated; invest much of that management time in the relationship.
  • Seek feedback at the end of major matters and cases, so you know the client’s level of satisfaction with the work and service from everyone on the team; respond to all concerns. And do a comprehensive review of the relationship, at least annual.
  • Identifying creative ways to help clients achieve their business goals (e.g., preventative law, product development, training, introductions); go to the client with ideas. Find ways to help clients make money, save money, look good and sleep better.

2. Get creative about fees and billing arrangements

You can gain a great advantage over the competition just by having conversations about costs and fees. Working collaboratively – even on a pilot basis – with a client to develop risk-sharing arrangements would be a differentiator.

Ask clients what they believe “partnering” means. This goes back to communication …. knowing what they value allows you to offer clients specific “win-win” fee arrangements. Being willing to have ‘some skin in the game” will also separate you from most other lawyers and firms. This typically requires some investment of non-billable time in the relationship, but that is how non-billable time SHOULD be used.

3. Make client service mean something

Everyone in your organization should understand how important it is to deliver ‘over and above’ service at every point of contact. With vendors, prospective clients, community and professional groups and organizations, of course, clients and prospects.

You should be sharing client feedback data to help them understand the power and importance of service – and to inspire them to be exceptional by seeing the profound impact it has on client satisfaction.

And you need to training them in the skills and attitudes needed to deliver that level of service. (It is important to engender a culture of service excellence when serving each other within the firm, as well.)

Keep it simple.  You are in the relationship business.  Find out what clients care about and deliver it better than your competitors, and you will enjoy real success

Learn why authenticity is the key to successful lawyers.