A Young Lawyer’s Guide To Building a Client Base

By Lee Robertson

Like you, when I graduated from law school, I found a job with a midsize law firm making a base salary of $80,000 the first year, plus bonuses. The second year, I made $85,000, plus bonuses. The firm gave me a low-interest mortgage so I could buy a home, and two country club memberships. And best of all, a new BMW. I picked the color, of course.

Oh, that didn’t happen for you? Well, it didn’t happen for me, either. In fact, the only person I know that this actually happened to was Mitchell Y. McDeere, and he’s not real. He’s John Grisham’s famous character from “The Firm.”

For most of us, finding a job out of law school was a challenge. And, for almost all of us, keeping that job is a challenge, too (or at least it is for me). Because for most of us, our success as lawyers depends equally on the service we provide our clients, the value they believe they receive, and our ability to attract quality (and most importantly, paying) clients in the first place.

Attracting clients is hard work. In fact, I think it’s probably harder than the actual practice of law. Many of my law school classmates went to law school believing that after graduation they would rent some swanky Uptown office space, fill it up with mahogany furniture, wire it with the latest internet technology, and the clients would come running to the door. If you build it, they will come, and all that.

But I think all of us quickly realize that this isn’t the case. Building a client base literally takes a lifetime of hard work. It’s much more than just being good at arguing cases, or writing iron-clad contracts. In the end, it’s really about your ability to connect with people and make them want to hire you.

Knowing where to find clients, and how to reel them in, is an art. But like any artist, the harder you work, the better you’ll become. This article outlines some of the most effective ways that lawyers, wherever they are in their careers, can capture clients.

Carry Business Cards Everywhere

I am fortunate that my dad is a successful lawyer, because along the way, I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot about developing relationships, and a little about the practice of law too, from him.  Growing up, my dad talked to everyone he met. Within two or three minutes, he’d know their name, and they’d know his. And he would have handed them one of his business cards in that same two to three-minute span. Thanks to the ability to airdrop pictures and contacts these days, we’ve forgotten the importance of business cards. But you should always carry them. Give them to everyone you meet. Because somewhere along the way, those people are going to need a lawyer. If yours is the only business card they have, then you’re the only lawyer they’ll know to call. As a teenager, I was sometimes embarrassed by how often my dad talked to people—at church, at the car wash, in restaurants—but now I know why: those people became his clients. Years later, thanks to his distinctive business card, I often give mine to people who, after rummaging through their desks for a minute, find his card, too.

Join the Bar Association

You’ve probably heard that lawyers will be your best source of referrals. This is true. In fact, it’s so true, that some lawyers have built their entire practice based only on referrals from other lawyers. Lawyers, especially later in their careers, tend to become very siloed. They practice what they know, and not much else. So, when something (or someone) unusual comes through the door, they need to know where to send it. Develop a few focus areas, and market those to every lawyer you meet.

The best way to meet other lawyers is to get involved in the bar association. Whether it’s your local bar association, the North Carolina Bar Association, or even the American Bar Association, join these professional organizations. And don’t just pay dues—take advantage of all that they have to offer. Join a committee. Lead a section. Participate in programs. Go to social events. The more lawyers you meet, the more lawyers will know they can call you.

Don’t just be an active member. Take on a leadership role. For lawyers, one of the best ways to advertise your areas of expertise is to teach a seminar. We all know that lawyers in North Carolina are required to take twelve hours of continuing legal education credit every year, and there are never enough lawyers willing to teach them. Sign up to teach a CLE. Then, when one of your students has a referral in that area, they’ll know just where to send it.

Get to Know a Closing Attorney

Most people don’t know lawyers. This was a surprise to me (my dad, my aunt, and numerous cousins are all lawyers), so I assumed that most people have a lawyer somewhere in their family tree. But actually, most people don’t know lawyers, and often, the only lawyer they do know are the lawyers that help them purchase their homes or handle their speeding tickets. Generally, these lawyers don’t also handle other types of cases. When another legal question arises—that’s the only lawyer they know, so that’s the only lawyer who they call. If you have a good relationship with a closing attorney, then when those clients come back with another problem, that attorney will know just where to send them.

Join the Alumni Association

Every college, university, and law school has an alumni association. Get to know yours. If your law school has an active alumni association, join it and become involved. Not only is it a great place to meet other lawyers, but your law school’s alumni association also has a lot of other non-attorney members. For example, one of my best friends went to law school, but hasn’t practiced law a day in her life. Instead, she owns a chain of successful animal hospitals. She’s not a lawyer, but she has a JD, and she’s very engaged in her law school’s alumni association. The social and networking events that the school hosts are great places to meet attorneys from across the state—and often, when someone knows of a need in your neck of the woods, they’ll let you know.

Get Involved

You may have already been asked to join a Board of Directors or a committee of a charitable organization. If you haven’t, you will. Accept these invitations when they are presented to you. To be clear: they generally come with strings. If you sign up, you’ll be expected to donate money, and time, and probably your legal knowledge, too. But in addition to doing something good for other people, serving on boards and committees connects you to other community leaders, who often need lawyers. Typically, leaders of organizations have both influence and affluence—two traits that lawyers find very useful when identifying new clients.

Trade Organizations

There are other organizations, too. Consider the number of trade and professional organizations that exist. Most of them probably don’t have lawyers on their membership rosters. Some do, of course. The insurance adjusters association and the subcontractors association, for example, probably have more lawyers than members at the meetings. Those may not be the best use of your time (unless you’re an insurance lawyer, or represent subcontractors). But other trade organizations don’t have that same problem. One of my greatest professional friends found some of his best clients by joining a trade organization of event planners. Naturally, there weren’t too many lawyers hanging out with a bunch of DJs or wedding planners. But guess what? They all need lawyers. And now, he represents more event planners than any other lawyer around.

Sponsor Events

If you look on the back of any community program, or go to any community event, you’ll see a list of sponsors. Usually, these are the usual suspects—the banks, the hospitals, and the big law firms. But local organizations, especially, always need sponsors. Usually, this just involves paying a fee in exchange for some free advertising. But community events and programs are also good opportunities to meet other community leaders. Take advantage of these. Sponsor a Little League team, lead a Chamber of Commerce After-Hours event; or put up a banner at the YMCA.

Invest in a Local SEO Professional

These days, everyone has a website. And, most firms also use a third-party provider to optimize those results. If you don’t, then you should think about it. A specialized search engine optimizer can make sure your name and your website show up in searches. If your business depends on reaching the general public, then the faster you can get in front of them, the more likely they’re going to call you.

Get to Know your Clients

You know who will be most likely to send you more work? A client you already have. Take the time to get to know them. The best way to do this is to go visit them. If you represent a business, ask the owner for a tour of their office, or a chance to see what they do and learn more about their business. Get in the car and drive over to meet with them. You’d be surprised at how frequently lawyers believe they’re too busy to leave their offices to meet with a client. But making the time will pay countless dividends. And more often than not, when you stop by for a visit, you leave with more work to do.

I’m sure there are other effective methods but these are just a few examples of methods I have found useful. Best of luck to you all in attracting new clients.