There is an easy way and a hard way to develop a good client base in the legal profession. The hard way is to work extremely long hours and be phenomenally good at what you do. I have met a few people who have done it this way, but not very many.
In fact, I have met some people who have done both of those things and still been reliant upon other lawyers to bring in the clients.
The easy way is to make friends. In my case, that meant three things – going to a lot of lunches, opening up to people and listening to them.
Accountants were my best source of referrals. I often said that I would rather go to 100 lunches with one accountant than one lunch with each of 100 accountants. After a few lunches with the same accountant, we would be friends and client referrals would flow. After one lunch with a new accountant, I was unlikely to recognize them if I passed them on the street a month later.
At each of these lunches I would talk about my personal life. For example, I would often share the story about how my domestic reorganization came about. Some of my lunch dates might react poorly to that – perhaps their marriage had ended in a manner similar to mine, and they did not want to be friends with someone who had done something like what their ex-spouse had done, or perhaps they just thought that personal things should be kept personal.
Others would react very well – happy to get to know me on a personal level and now feeling free to share things about their own lives.
But all of them would remember me because I wasn’t just another lawyer pitching them for their business and telling them that my fees were reasonable, and the quality of my work was great. Having related to potential referral sources or clients on a personal level often resulted in new client relationships.
As I have often coached junior lawyers, competence is usually assumed, especially by people who are not a member of the same profession. Typically, I assume that the doctors, dentists, and engineers who I meet are competent. In fact, the less that I know about their profession, the more likely it is that I will assume that they know what they are doing when I meet them. I am somewhat less likely to assume competence in an accountant because I have a better idea of what they do, and I am never going to assume competence in a lawyer unless I have had a good discussion with them about their technical knowledge and how they practice.
Since my potential referral sources and clients are often going to assume that I am competent unless I give them reason not to, they are likely going to choose me to be their lawyer based on other criteria, such as whether they like me when they meet me. And they are never going to know whether they like me unless they know something about my personal life.
Of course, I always had one or two “legal” things to share to prove that I wasn’t just a pretty face.
My conclusion, although admittedly based only on my own observations, is that those intensely private people who like to keep their personal and private lives separate or who believe that it is not appropriate to discuss personal matters with strangers, will have more difficulty establishing a good client base, no matter how competent they are. Of course, they can always try to do it the hard way, by working long hours and being brilliant.
None of this is to say that you can be incompetent and hold onto clients once you have attracted them. Eventually, the truth will out. However, sharing my life experience with interesting people was both fun and profitable, and a welcome break from drafting documents.
Finally, no story about marketing by having lunch can neglect to mention my personal lunch hero, an accountant at BDO who was famous for scheduling two lunches every day. Salad with the first client; main course with the second client. You know who you are.