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Well Said!

Stone Soup: A Client Development Metaphor

By Mike O'Horo

There is an old folk story that makes a fine metaphor for client development. In the tale, hungry strangers (read: the law firm client team) facilitate the people of a town (the team’s clients) giving them food (solving a problem and getting paid for doing so). The story is usually offered as a lesson in cooperation, especially amid scarcity.

Here’s the story, with the law firm equivalents in parentheses.

Food for the Team

Some travelers come to a village, carrying nothing more than an empty cooking pot (symbolic of the starting point for the attorney-client conversation). When the hungry travelers first arrive, the villagers are unwilling to share their food stores with them (as in, existing clients’ inside counsel and operations people who are unwilling to share information with outside counsel).

The travelers go to a stream and fill the cooking pot with water, drop a large stone in it (the first probing question asked by outside attorneys to stimulate thought within their client’s organization), and place it over a fire. One of the villagers (client) becomes curious and asks what they’re doing. The travelers reply that they’re making “stone soup,” which tastes wonderful, although to improve the flavor it still needs a little garnish, which they’re missing. The villager doesn’t mind parting with a few carrots (information) to help them out, so that gets added to the soup.

Another villager walks by, inquiring about the pot (more information) and the travelers again mention their stone soup, which has still not reached its full potential. The villager (client) contributes a little bit of seasoning (connections to other internal stakeholders) to help them out.

More and more villagers walk by, each adding another ingredient (they’re on a roll now). Finally, a delicious and nourishing pot of soup is enjoyed by all.

A Win-Win for Client and Counsel

“Soup enjoyed by all” is a metaphor for the resulting win-win:

  • For the client: The discovery and attention paid to avert a problem or resolve a potential issue that heretofore had not been acknowledged or examined by the client
  • For outside counsel: The work commissioned and the fees earned

The lesson for lawyers seeking to grow existing clients is to stop asking for new work, which is the ultimate reward, and instead ask for small amounts of information that will help you do a better job with current work. Solicit these information “grants” from as many sources as you’re able to approach in a relevant manner.

Over time, frequent contributions from diverse sources will yield a rich understanding of the client’s business challenges and opportunities, and those of the various contributors. It shouldn’t be hard to recognize additional ways to help them.

An adage among entrepreneurs seeking investment capital is, “If you ask for money, you’ll get advice. If you ask for advice, you’ll get money.”

Substitute the word “work” for “money” and you have the lawyer-friendly version.

Illustration ©

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Mike O’Horo Mike O'Horo

Known as “The Coach” throughout his long career, Mike O’Horo was a giant among his peers in legal marketing and business development. He trained more than 7,000 lawyers, simplifying powerful sales processes by which they generated $1.5 billion in new business. A serial innovator, earlier he developed RainmakerVT, a virtual BD training tool, and the sales training program ResultsPath. He wrote his column, “Well Said!,” on sales and business development truths for lawyers. Mike passed away in February 2022.

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