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Legal Business

The biggest mistake lawyers make when trying to develop new business

The biggest mistake most lawyers make in developing new business is that they don't listen.  In a shocking turn of events, they talk too much.

Experts agree that when you are building business relationships, you should spend 50% to 80% of your time listening. But when lawyers meet potential clients, many can't find time to listen because they are so busy talking about how wonderful their firm is. 

The familiar term "pitch meeting" shows just how pervasive this mistake is.  Most lawyers seem to think that when they meet with prospective clients, their task is to pitch, to hurl, to throw out information.  In fact, any successful sales person will tell you that instead of pitching, you should be catching, listening to what clients have to say. 

The client is a lot more interested in her own problems than in your capabilities. If she did not think you were good, she wouldn't waste time meeting with you. So you need to devote most of the meeting time to focusing on what she wants, needs, and feels. As the old saying goes, that's why you have two ears and only one mouth.

As Steve Bell, Chief Client Development Officer at Womble Carlyle, put it:

When a prospective client agrees to a meeting, the lawyer needs to understand that he or she is already sufficiently credentialed.  Forget about the resume, the publications, and the victories.  Start asking good questions and listening carefully.

If you could use work in this area, try to become a more "active listener" by checking back with the speaker to make sure that each statement has been accurately heard.  Ask simple questions such as:

  • Are you saying...?
  • Do I have it right?
  • How does that sound?
  • Tell me more...
  • You seem to feel frustrated. Is that because...?

For more examples of active listening techniques, see Kevin Daley's book Socratic Selling to learn to "master the art of the easily answered question." The book includes many examples of non-directive probes you can use to help clients think through a situation without feeling pressured. 

Active listening will relax the speaker and get them to open up.  It is useful not just in business development, but in life.  As Steven Covey summed it up in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, "If I were to summarize the single most important principle in the field of interpersonal relationships, listening is the key."

Listening sounds simple, and comes naturally to some people.  I am not one of them, and most lawyers aren't either, because we have so much to say.

We all need to remind ourselves that clients do too. Professional salespeople have an old saying that "whoever talks the most will enjoy the meeting the most." That's one reason so many lawyers frequently hold meetings that they think are great but that never lead to new business.  If you want to build a relationship, you want the client to be the one who enjoys the meeting.

This post is a preview of material from the second edition of The LegalBizDev Desk Reference, which will be published next fall.