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Getting Clients

Don’t Be Just Any Old Lawyer!

By Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

Not long ago, I was asked to make a presentation at a state bar’s Law Practice Management Committee luncheon. Topic? Getting clients, of course. When we opened things up for questions, a gentleman in the back said, “You make it sound like the only way to get clients is to specialize!” Ummm. That is exactly what we spent the first 45 minutes discussing — and yes, focusing is the best way.

Based on his tone, he didn’t like that idea.

Finding a Way to Stand Out

There are something like 1.35 million lawyers in the U.S. Without some unique characteristic, getting clients, it’s just a game of Claw Crane. And that is a game with very low chances of winning.

Look at it from the client’s perspective. Why would they want a lawyer who has no particular experience with the particular legal issue they want resolved? If I’m a landowner looking for assistance with a Montana mineral and water rights sale, I don’t want someone who says they handle traffic tickets, child custody and maritime law, too. I want someone who specializes in mineral and water rights contracts — or at least does a good deal of that kind of work. (Just like I wanted an experienced hand surgeon when I needed a thumb joint repaired, not a general practice doctor.)

Really, the last thing you want, when you have an important problem to solve, is someone who says, “Well, I think I can figure out how to do that.”

But it’s not just a matter of competence and client confidence, knowing that you’ve done tons of whatever it is that they need. Focusing your law practice builds effectiveness into your marketing activities, too. A lawyer who specializes in municipal transportation litigation knows where to advertise and how to focus speeches, blog posts and articles for publication. She knows the kinds of organizations to join to spend maximum time building relationships with the right potential clients and referral sources. And those are different from the places an immigration lawyer, animal husbandry lawyer or non-confrontational divorce lawyer would go to market.

Without that kind of focus, how can you know where to begin marketing?

What if You Don’t Want to Specialize?

It is possible to build a successful law practice without specializing in a particular type of legal problem — we all know a successful general practice lawyer. But even then, there must be something that differentiates you. Here are a few ways you might characterize yourself that would allow people to decide if you are the lawyer they want to hire:

  • Convenient. You live and work in a small town or identifiable development and your location makes it easy to find and meet with you.
  • Virtual. Another kind of convenience is provided for those clients who don’t want to change out of their pajamas before meeting with their lawyer, or travel from a remote location.
  • Friendly. It’s possible your clients enjoy your company so well that they recommend you to others as friendly and easy to work with.
  • Inexpensive. I could see how you might not want this to be your defining characteristic, but if you build your business model correctly, your practice could still be a moneymaker.

You can see that these characteristics won’t necessarily help you define your marketing activities. Also, they all mean you are going to have to work a lot harder at marketing than if you had a specialty area. At a minimum, though, one of these characteristics could clarify your marketing message: “He’s the friendly lawyer.”

So, I come back to specializing as the most important first step to effective marketing — and the smartest way to build a successful practice. Not only does it mean you are highly competent, deserving of your clients’ confidence and well-focused in your marketing activities. It means you can choose to do the kind of work you really want to do, not just any kind of work that comes in the door.

And who doesn’t want that?

Illustration ©

Categories: Business Development, Getting Clients, Law Firm Marketing
Originally published October 17, 2017
Last updated June 9, 2022
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Merrilyn Astin Tarlton Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

Merrilyn is the author of “Getting Clients: For Lawyers Starting Out or Starting Over.” She has been helping lawyers and law firms think differently about the business of practicing law since 1984. She is a founding member of the Legal Marketing Association, an LMA Hall of Fame inductee, and a past President of the College of Law Practice Management. Merrilyn was a founding partner of Attorney at Work. 

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