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Ask the Experts

How Do I Ask for Business?

By The Editors

Question: Help! I just need to know the right words to use. I’ve got a great network of potential clients and lawyers who could refer clients to me. But I apparently send the message that I’m not interested. How can I ask for business without sounding desperate?

Ask the Experts from the LMA

Valerie NelanValerie Nelan: First, don’t feel awkward if these are close friends and acquaintances—they want to help you succeed if they can, but you have to take the first step. Second, make sure everyone knows exactly what you do, and capitalize on any niche areas you’re in. Then, go in for the kill.

For potential clients, start by researching their industry, and then asking them specific questions about the business: How are recent regulations affecting them? Do they plan on expanding soon? What’s on their desk right now? With enough sincere probing, you’ll find an opening for this kind of question: “I’d love to look over that contract/review that policy/visit the plant. Is next week good for you?”

For other lawyers, often you can be blunter, especially if you can reciprocate: “You’re at a boutique IP litigation firm, and my firm is eight states deep. Let’s keep each other in mind.” But it’s vital that other lawyers know precisely what you practice.

Finally, never underestimate the value of being a “connector,” for clients, prospects and other lawyers alike. Introducing people in your circle to each other engenders goodwill that they often will want to pay back.

Valerie Nelan is a business development manager at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz, PC, an AmLaw 200 firm. She coaches lawyers, coordinates attorney training programs and is the business development liaison for the firm’s financial institutions practice group and two industry service teams. Reach her at via LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter @ValerieNelan.

Seth AppleSeth Apple: Don’t ask for the business in the beginning. Instead, change your message by going 3-D. Demonstrate, display and describe.

Demonstrate: Show you are interested in a potential client’s industry and aware of issues that impact their bottom line by forwarding newspaper and magazine articles, or recommending business, leadership or management books that are actionable. These are simple (memorable) ways to show clients and targets your comprehensive commitment to their business by using other people’s words.

Display: Presentations can be another important way to show you are knowledgeable and approachable on issues that impact a potential client’s business before actually asking for the work. Invite them to a seminar, offer a webinar on a topical issue or provide an in-house CLE. These are effective visibility tools that can lead to engagement. If you can make the viewer say “I like this guy,” the business will likely follow.

Describe: Most importantly, describe how you can assist potential clients with issues in a way that is unique to them. Make the extra effort to show your presentations and materials were not “off the shelf” and they will notice. Do your homework on the contact and the company and then incorporate your findings into specific business development activities.

Seth M. Apple is a business development manager at Davis Polk & Wardwell. He has held similar positions with Epstein Becker Green and Themis Bar Review, and is also a former practicing attorney with Sills Cummis & Gross. Apple is currently a co-chair of the communications committee for the Metropolitan New York Chapter of the LMA. You can reach him at or via LinkedIn.  

Kevin SullivanKevin Sullivan: Without directly asking for business, make yourself a ready resource for lawyers who practice in other areas of the law. Let them know you’re there to offer guidance on matters outside their bailiwick as a professional courtesy to them. Make a similar offer to potential clients. Demonstrate your expertise by sending articles you have written that cover a topic in which they’re interested. By offering this “free” advice and service, you demonstrate your knowledge and your willingness to put the needs of others at the top of your priorities.

Set up a reminder for yourself to communicate periodically with your network so that you are top-of-mind as a resource. You will be perceived as someone who focuses on client service and is easy to work with. That is the type of lawyer most people want on their side, so your efforts will eventually pay off.

Kevin Sullivan is the CMO of Fisher & Phillips LLP, where the marketing department has earned several awards over the past seven years. He has held senior leadership positions at PR firms and technology companies, and had a 15-year career in TV journalism. He writes about marketing, crisis communications and media relations for business publications and has contributed chapters to five books published by PR News.

That’s a Good Question! What’s Yours?

No, not every law firm has a professional marketer or business development coach on staff to answer questions. So send us your questions via email or in the comment section below, and we’ll pass them on to the experts at the Legal Marketing Association. Watch for the best responses here in Ask the Expert.

The Legal Marketing Association provides professional support and education as well as opportunities for intellectual and practical information exchange.

The opinions expressed herein are those of the authors.

Illustration ©

Categories: Ask the Experts, Business Development, Law Firm Marketing
Originally published January 21, 2013
Last updated February 12, 2020
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