Business Development

Didn’t Get the Work? Now What?

By | Aug.13.12 | Business Development, Daily Dispatch, Rainmaking

It was a formal response to an RFP. Or maybe a pitch you finally made to that client you’ve been softening up for some time. And you were great! But … no, you didn’t get the work. It is so disappointing, that goes without saying. But it’s important right now that you not let your chin drop to your chest or disappear behind your office door for a day of pouting. There are things to be done!

But You Don’t Feel Like It?

Let’s say right up front that this is hard, hard work — putting yourself out there and asking people to say “yes!” But it’s the nature of the beast in today’s legal profession, so get used to it. And figure out ways to get better at it. We all know (let’s see, was that kindergarten?) that making mistakes is how we learn. But once you’re told “no,” all you know is that it wasn’t a “yes.” The way to succeed next time is to find out what went wrong this time. (Yes, there will be a next time.) So here’s a simple step-by-step to-do list for after the client turns you down.

Recover. Okay, go ahead and take a little time to bounce back from the disappointment. Something like 24 hours, no more. Go for a long walk. Dinner with friends. Read a good book. Whatever it is that rewinds your watch and gets you ticking once more.

Reconnect. Yep. Contact that person who said “no.” You may be tempted to send a safe email message, but don’t. Pick up the phone and have a real-time conversation. While some people will encourage you to do this face to face, I’m not one of them. Having been on the other side of a few of those, I’ve learned that the implied pressure is too great. If you insist on “lunch so we can find out what went wrong,” they may take you up on it, but you’ll never see them again. Ick. Here’s what you want to accomplish:

  • Confirm that the answer was really “no.”
  • Communicate that there are no hard feelings and that you really value and respect their decision-making.
  • Learn if someone else was given the work and, if so, who it was. (It’s always good to know who your competition is.)
  • Inquire whether there’s anything they think you should know so that you can do a better job next time.
  • Make sure they know that you are always prepared to step in and help in any way in the future.

Reconnoiter. Sit down together with everyone who assisted with the pitch. Your peers, young lawyers and staff. Be mature about it and don’t feel embarrassed. This is a great time to model for others how to handle disappointment. Share the client’s feedback with them—they deserve to know. Then ask what might have been done differently and listen. They’ll have some good general thoughts. Make sure you encourage them to give you personal feedback as well. If your colleagues can’t speak honestly with you, who can? And if they can’t, how will you learn?

Begin again. Make any changes in systems or methods that you’ve learned should be made. Pull up that prospects list on your computer and figure out your next opportunity to try out what you’ve learned. Get back up on that horse!

Wouldn’t it be great if clients just noticed the old firm website by chance and found what you’ve written about yourself to be so compelling that they call and hire you on the spot? Yeah. Never happens. If you’re going to be in private practice nowadays, you’re going to have to learn how to ask for (and get) the work. Doing it wrong is your best opportunity to get it right.

Merrilyn Astin Tarlton has been helping lawyers and law firms think differently about the business of practicing law since 1984. She was a founding member of the Legal Marketing Association, past President of the College of Law Practice Management and one of the first LMA Hall of Fame inductees. She is a Partner/Catalyst at Attorney at Work.

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9 Responses to “Didn’t Get the Work? Now What?”

  1. Susan Hackett
    13 August 2012 at 7:55 am #

    Nice article, Merrilyn – thanks! My contribution to the string: I find that “no” most often means “not now”: it rarely means “never.” There are some folks who will never be chosen by some clients, but mostly, the choice of one firm over 12 others (or more likely, 500 others) is not a reflection that the losing firms weren’t any good, but that they simply did not beat out the chosen competitor for that particular project or work. There are usually a number of issues at play in every retention, and firms that don’t get chosen for one, are well advised to bounce back and try again. -Susan

  2. Bob Denney
    13 August 2012 at 8:41 am #

    Good article, Merrilyn, but in my experience, asking why YOU didn’t get the work or what you could have done differently most times doesn’t elicit the REAL reason because the potential client doesn’t want to hurt your feelings. On the other hand, if you ask what were the reasons the other firm/lawyer was chosen – even if they won’t tell you who it is – will generally produce an more honest and helpful response.


  3. Stephen Nelson
    13 August 2012 at 9:59 am #

    Another good article, Merrilyn, and one that is relevant to law firm service providers as well. While I agree with Bob that asking directly about what one could do differently often doesn’t lead to the actual reason, I would still ask the question. But it’s better to first ask the question as to why the other firm was chosen.

  4. Kathleen
    13 August 2012 at 11:18 am #

    Nice piece Merrilyn — and hearing “not now” instead of “no” is so critical to keeping one’s heart and head in the game. Thanks very much for the piece.

    Kathleen Havener

  5. Merrilyn Astin Tarlton
    13 August 2012 at 11:28 am #

    Bob and Steve, great comments. That conversation can be SO difficult. And I love your suggestion to make it positive by asking “Why did you choose them?”

  6. Annlee Ellingson
    13 August 2012 at 5:30 pm #

    Ditto—this is great advice. Another tip: always try to negotiate a follow-up at the end of every meeting. Whether it’s a casual conversation or a formal pitch, afterward, look for a reason to stay in touch. Offer to do an analysis. Propose a low-cost service that will demonstrate who you are and what you do. If your prospect reveals a need that you don’t provide, make a referral and set up an introduction. If your prospect mentions his or her accountant, express an interest in meeting him or her. If your prospect expresses an appreciation for Ethiopian food, invite him or her to lunch. Even if you don’t get that job, you still have a reason to follow up and keep in contact with the client down the road.

  7. Tom Kane
    15 August 2012 at 10:37 am #

    Great topic, Merrilyn. I’m a big believer in post mortems after making a proposal for legal work. I too advise firms to get feedback (as others have stated), but I am a big believer in finding out why a firm won a competition as well. It may not be for the reasons one thought. I learned an important lesson in that regard which I covered in a blog I wrote back in 2008. Thanks for getting the thread going.