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Straight out of law school, I joined a small law practice. I didn’t start out as an associate with a large salary and plenty of document review projects to hit my hours. I had to eat what I killed and immediately begin bringing in clients. If you’ve recently hung your shingle and need some ideas for getting clients, here’s what worked for me.
Almost day one of my career I visited the criminal courthouse and introduced myself to every criminal judge. I asked about getting on their appointment list. You know the whole “if you can’t afford an attorney, you will be appointed one.” That list. Each judge has their own way of selecting attorneys. With some, you must be present to be appointed. Others go down their list in order. If you get on the list, you will start receiving cases almost immediately.
To keep getting cases, you need to turn those new clients into referrers. Visit them in the jail, in person. Give them a copy of their case file along with a load of business cards. I can promise that few other detainees have their case file. You will be called. One of the biggest complaints about lawyers is the lack of communication. Criminal defendants who are repeat offenders will have had some experience with bad attorneys. You will look like a rock star in comparison.
Don’t just get on the trial court appointment list — ask the judge to be placed on the appellate list, too. Typically, those cases will be where a guilty defendant files for post-conviction relief and asserts ineffective assistance of counsel.
Civil court doesn’t appoint attorneys the same way criminal court does. There is no constitutional right to an attorney in civil court, except in mental health and conservatorship hearings. In those cases, you can be appointed as the attorney ad litem for the respondent or the guardian ad litem. In either case, you will gain a case. Visit the judge who handles the mental health and conservatorship dockets and ask to be put on their list.
Almost every local bar association has a referral service. Potential clients who don’t personally know a lawyer or trust Google will call the service and the bar will go down the referral list for that particular area of law. You won’t get a lucrative project using this method, but you can increase your influence and gain experience. (Here’s the list of local referral programs from the American Bar Association.)
Naturally, you have already been networking with other attorneys. But the key is to network with ones who practice in areas of law that differ from your practice. You probably aren’t going to get a probate client referral from a probate attorney. So, while at criminal court, let those attorneys know about your civil practice. While at civil court, talk about your criminal cases. Be sure to network with divorce attorneys and family lawyers. They typically practice in those areas of law exclusively, but their cases drive many ancillary issues: orders of protection, domestic disturbances, bankruptcy, guardian ad litem appointments for minors, guardianship of funds and more.
Each of these techniques brought me multiple clients, and brought them very quickly.
A last, important note: Don’t forget to thank your referrers, including the judges. They don’t have to appoint you. If they continue to send clients, it means they trust your work and respect you as an attorney. Don’t take that lightly.
Ryan Nevin is a business development consultant in Nashville. He provides website development, online marketing, and content creation services to lawyers and their firms. He regularly contributes to Strictly Business, a corporate and business law blog. Ryan is of counsel with The Nevin Law Firm, where he was an estate planning, probate, and bankruptcy attorney.
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