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The Case for Taking Clients Out for Meals

Jan. 15, 2016, 4:05 PM

Editor’s Note: The author of this post advises law firms and lawyers on business development initiatives.

Joanna Penn, Client Relationship Executive, Bloomberg BNA

Building client relationships is a fundamental element of business that takes common sense, but is not common practice.

The 2015 Altman Weil Law Firm’s in Transition survey revealed that only 64 percent of firms are planning on having their management visit key clients and less than half surveyed intend on conducting formal client interviews.

With those numbers, one can assume that attorney visits to middle-of-the-pack clients and informal interviews will be even scarcer.

Such resistance to learning more about clients’ needs and goals at a time when demand is down makes little sense, except that it has been the norm for as long as many firms have been in existence. But with the oversaturation of partners and the decline of work, if you want to set yourself apart you need only a singular resolution for 2016: build stronger client relationships. And consider doing it face-to-face, the old-fashioned way.

Take Milt Stewart and some dining habits he developed:

Early in his career, Stewart founded an M&A boutique. He had the brains, the resources, and the perfect office space, but what he lacked were clients. While he was on his own fighting to stay afloat, he said that “business development became a part of his DNA.” When he joined Davis Wright Tremaine in the mid-1980s, Stewart formed a New Year’s ritual which kept his business bustling until he retired in 2014. Every January, Stewart wrote two letters which he would customize accordingly — one was sent to clients and the second to referral sources which included investment bankers, accountants, and other attorneys. The letters were simple. He invited them to join him in a breakfast, lunch, or dinner where he would “turn the meter off” to discuss the past year and what was coming down the pike.

For nearly 30 years, he spent the first three months of each year having roughly 100 meals with recipients of the letter. He preferred breakfasts, as they were cheaper and the other party was rarely late or had to cancel. Some days he even had two breakfasts, but with the clever logistical assistance of his trusty waiter at Portland’s Heathman Hotel restaurant, he was able to pull it off without a hitch.

“It was never a random act of eating,” Stewart told me. Between getting to know the person and often discussing family matters, there were specific questions he always asked: What did our firm do right? Who did you enjoy working with? What could I have done better? Where is your business headed and how can we help? And he also offered to give free legal advice while at the table.

“When you sit with someone for two hours, you get to know them and not just their business. You find out how to approach them and what’s really on their mind.”

Stewart added that there wasn’t a year where he didn’t get the majority of his work for the next six months from those meals. But that work came from disciplined and rigorous follow-up.

As soon as humanly possible, he would recap the interaction and write a reminder on his calendar to call, write or set up another meeting within the next three to four weeks. This led to new clients, more business, referrals, and close personal relationships. Stewart said that while some attorneys demand a separation between business and pleasure, he lives by the motto “my friends are my clients and my clients are my friends.” Over time, he realized that because of his personality, the more he knows a person, the more of himself he can give.

Stewart believes that one of the most important messages to convey is that while the recipient pool for letters or emails can be reduced based on one’s bandwidth, the recipients can’t be cherry-picked. “It wasn’t mercenary and it wasn’t intentional,” he stressed.

As one can imagine, from decades of these interactions Stewart has countless success stories. But as he speaks, it is clear that his success came from a genuine commitment of wanting to help solve problems and forge new connections.

When developing a plan of your own to build and strengthen client relationships, it is imperative to think long-term, stick to what motivates you, and remain open-minded. “You aren’t having breakfast so that someone will pay you lots of money,” Stewart concluded. “You do it to build strength and confidence in the relationship. But if you do enough of them, people will come to you with incredibly important, complex, lucrative legal work. And, in the best instances, they become a friend.”