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Litigators Need to Focus on Client Development: Here’s How

May 9, 2022, 8:00 AM

In the early 2000s, a partner running a significant litigation department looked me squarely in the eye and said, “I’m a litigator. That means I don’t market. Once the client is done working with me, they want the whole litigation episode behind them.” At the time, I thought he might be right. I now know, he was wrong.

Litigators may say that they only get hired when a company or individual is in trouble or if their law firm is on their client’s radar at the right time, but this isn’t the complete story. While litigators are typically contacted when there is legal trouble brewing, they need to be fostering relationship, maintaining a profile, and providing service and insights to potential clients, even when there isn’t a lawsuit involved.

Below are several steps that litigators can take to professionalize their approach to business development.

Create a Plan and Set Goals

First, have an individual plan and act on it. Even the best litigators need the guidance of a plan. If the firm doesn’t have a strategic plan, a practice plan with well-thought-out strategies and tactics is also a good start.

A good practice plan will also clearly denote who should do what by when and help drive a group effort, tell lawyers where the firm is headed and provide them assurance that leadership has a strategy in place. While regulatory changes and business opportunities may alter parts of the strategy, frameworks can be adjusted.

Goals set in the overall plan, in fact, can inform decisions about how to adapt a particular component for a changing business landscape.

Understand Where Your Clients Come From

Second, know where your clients come from. While you want to look toward the future, one of the best predictors of what will work may be in the past. Look at a list of clients you’ve represented over the past several years and note how they came to you. Were they referred to you through another client, a colleague in another practice, or by a lawyer at an outside firm who was conflicted from a matter?

By looking at the past, you’ll get an idea of some of the sources that may bring you work in the future and understand which referral sources you should continue to cultivate

Build a Profile

Third, build and maintain a personal profile in your practice area. For example, lawyers may not get selected for an engagement based on their appearance on LinkedIn, but as general counsel use the platform, both to see whom they know in a particular area and to review a lawyer’s credentials, it is important to have a presence. Some studies say that LinkedIn, as opposed to a law firm’s website, may likely be the first source in-house counsel check when they are looking at a lawyer’s experience.

Using LinkedIn is just one way of building a profile; taking on targeted speaking engagements, publishing articles, and attending conferences are some others. Based on your objectives, the audience you need to reach, and the tactics that work best for you, there are a range of options.

Keep Up With Government Policy Changes

Fourth, monitor changes in federal and state administrations as well as government policy to forecast areas likely to generate lawsuits in the future. A global consulting firm with which I worked maintained a team of people whose sole job was to track the changes coming out of Washington, D.C. That enabled the firm’s partners to predict impacts on their practice areas and guide their clients.

Whether it is the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office or the Securities and Exchange Commission that matters most to your practice area, monitoring changes in policy and other legal developments enables you to keep clients ahead of the curve while helping you gauge where your own practice may be headed.

Create Searches to Track Clients

Fifth, track specific clients, industries and topics. By keeping an eye on past and current clients you will increase the likelihood of knowing when cases are filed against their companies, as well as the topics that may imply a rise in future investigations or lawsuits.

At a basic level, set up Google searches to watch companies in which you have an interest to see where they are appearing in the news. If you have more sophisticated resources at hand, set Pacer alerts, track industry developments, and monitor economic signals that may give rise to litigation

Ensure Younger Litigators Develop Contacts

Sixth, train your younger litigators in business development. If associates haven’t been developing contacts by the time they make partner, often seven to nine years into their career, they’ve wasted valuable time and are left lacking the necessary resources to meet firm goals for generating business. Lawyers don’t magically develop the skill to foster business once they are named partners.

Jeffrey Klein, Of Counsel at Clarick Gueron Reisbaum LLP, who focuses on employment disputes and sports law, says in my book “Best Practices in Law Firm Marketing and Business Development” that “Marketing is muscle.”

His meaning is simple: Lawyers must practice their own business development skills over the long haul, just as athletes work out to build and maintain muscles. Only by putting in the time and effort will professionals from any field develop these skills.

Stay in Touch with Clients

And last, stay in touch with clients, even during quiet times. It should go without saying how important it is to maintain contact with clients, particularly when they are not in trouble.

By being there for them only in bad times, you take the risk that they may not think of you when they need a lawyer. In addition, there’s also the danger that they will begin to view the relationship solely as a necessary evil.

Developing business for a litigator isn’t a simple business to business (B2B) relationship. Success here depends on P2P, person-to-person relationships, appropriate planning and lots of hard work.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Author Information

Deborah B. Farone is founder of Farone Advisors LLC. She is a consultant to law firms and other professional services, a public speaker, and the author of “Best Practices in Law Firm Business Development and Marketing.” She is the former CMO of Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP and Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, where she was responsible for building the firms’ marketing departments.

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