Early in my career I thought that I must impress potential clients so they’d engage my services. Upon sitting down together in my firm’s conference room, I would begin by asking questions about why we were meeting and what they hoped to accomplish.
So far so good.
I might hear “We’re interested in creating a family partnership,” “my life insurance agent said that I need an irrevocable life insurance trust to own this large policy I’m purchasing” or something along those lines.
I’d take the bait and begin analyzing the situation, explaining all of the ins and outs of what they were trying to accomplish. An intriguing give-and-take would ensue, as the discussion led to the generation of several possibilities. I’d occasionally reveal a state-of-the-art strategy I learned at a high-level continuing education workshop. As the potential clients dutifully took notes I felt proud. “Boy,” I thought, “they must be impressed with my skills and knowledge!”
Imagine my surprise at the meeting’s conclusion when they shook my hand announcing, “Thank you very much for your time. We’re interviewing several attorneys and plan to get back to you sometime.”
My heart would sink. I’d just gift-wrapped all of my value for free!
In my last column I wrote about the perils of free initial consultations and how to limit those meetings to A+ rated prospects. Now, let’s review how to engage a potential client without giving away all of your value for free.
First, let’s identify the purpose of the initial consultation. Hopefully, the collection of important data has occurred beforehand through the use of a client organizer. So at this first meeting, you’d like to create value for the client without giving all of that value away. How exactly do you best accomplish that ?
I suggest that you ask a lot of questions. What are your clients’ goals? What answers do they seek? Do they have any preconceived ideas how they wish to achieve their goals? If so, from where did these ideas originate? Do they have current documents, and what do those documents say? What’s the time frame? Do they have confidence in their CPA and financial advisor? What do they see as the dangers or obstacles between where they are today and the goals they’d like to achieve?
People like to talk about themselves. Most clients will view these inquiries as valuable because you’re actively listening to them with on-point follow up questions. In so doing, you’ll be in the minority of our profession, as many lawyers don’t pay attention to their clients. Instead we hear a few words, jump to conclusions and then do exactly what I did when I was a young lawyer—begin lecturing to demonstrate our smarts. Worse, lawyers will talk about being board certified, having years of experience or being prominent among our peers.
Don’t Focus on Your Credentials
It’s important to remember that the initial consultation isn’t about you. If your client never had to meet you, he’d be just as happy. He doesn’t care what law school you graduated from or whether you wrote for law review. He sees you as a necessary evil to accomplish his goals and wouldn’t be sitting in front of you if he didn’t feel that you were qualified to do the work. He probably researched your background on the Internet anyway. Reviewing your credentials may even backfire, as the prospective client may wonder why you feel the need to do so.
As far as giving the clients the solutions to their problems, A+ clients don’t expect you to solve all of their issues before they engage you to perform the work. They want to be heard. Those who become frustrated when you don’t give them legal advice at your free meeting aren’t your A+ prospects and probably have no intention of paying for your knowledge anyway.
To that end, this first meeting shouldn’t serve solely as a one-way evaluation. Just as the potential client sizes you up, it’s an opportunity for you to evaluate whether she’s a good fit for you and your firm. I do this by probing her mindset. Is she looking to merely complete a transaction, or does she seek a long-term attorney/client relationship? Does she expect you to answer all questions, even the clerical ones, or is she willing to communicate directly with team members? Does she have reasonable expectations relative to time, value and complexity of her matter?
Determine the Prospect’s Mindset
I’ve found that a prospect’s mindset is the single most important factor in determining the success of the relationship. We’ve all been interviewed by clients who believe that we’re merely a more expensive form of online document preparation. Or we’ve spent time arguing with clients about things that they’re clearly misinformed about.
There’s absolutely no sense in that. If you get a feeling in your gut that the individual sitting across the conference room table from you isn’t going to be a good fit for your firm, go with that feeling. I once had a brash multi-millionaire spend an hour bragging to me about what a great businessman he was. His adult daughter, who also served as an important figure in his organization, attended the meeting with him, and she was more obnoxious than he was. Every other word out of their mouths was an f-bomb, and they didn’t have anything good to say about any other advisor they’d ever worked with.
I ended the conversation as quickly and politely as I could, sending them on their way. They appeared shocked that not only didn’t I beg for their business, but also, I clearly had no interest. In the end, it shouldn’t matter whether the prospect sitting before you is worth millions of dollars and has what appears to be a juicy matter. If the fit isn’t right, you’ll be upset if you take on the engagement.
On the other hand, for those interviews that go well, both you and the client will conclude the initial meeting feeling that real value has been exchanged, even if their issues haven’t yet been investigated. This is because both parties used the first meeting to establish a relationship and set expectations. When you listen to your potential client’s goals and concerns and have concluded that his mindset is congruent with yours, you’ve accomplished a great deal.
By following these guidelines, you’re most likely to establish great working relationships with happy clients who appreciate the value you create for them.