Resources Articles 10 Sure-Fire Ways To Lose A Client

10 Sure-Fire Ways To Lose A Client

The Complete Lawyer
Volume 2, Number 2
June 2006

Women lawyers face significant challenges in business development. Nevertheless most women lawyers have the potential to become "rainmakers."

As noted by many writers on the subject:

  • Women are typically excluded from informal "old boys' " networks
  • They are too overburdened with billing and family demands to have time for business development
  • Many are uncomfortable directly asking a potential client for business
  • Typical business development activities seem alien because they are rooted in male culture
  • They have few models and are rarely provided with training in business generation skills
  • Women are not socialized to treat work as a "game" and to compete to win

Challenging Women's Implicit Beliefs About Marketing Usually Removes The Single Largest Stumbling Block

Nevertheless, I believe that most women lawyers have the potential to become "rainmakers."  My optimism has consistently been bolstered by the successes of women in my rainmaking coaching groups.  Challenging women's implicit beliefs about marketing and what clients want usually removes the single largest stumbling block to their success.

If You're Not Interested In Confronting Self-Limiting Beliefs, Make Sure To Do The Following:

1. Do Work That Means Little To You

Doing work for which you have no passion is an almost certain way to fail at business development.  Your lack of genuine interest will deter you from learning about your clients' industry.  The idea of attending industry events or reading trade press will make housework look attractive.  When you meet with prospective clients, your lack of enthusiasm will be evident.  You will approach your work with your clients as transactions to be completed as quickly as possible.  Secretly (perhaps even to yourself) you'll be hoping they never call again.

2. Don't Build Your Network Until You Are Pressured To Bring In Business

Allow the demands of your inbox to keep you from developing and maintaining mutually beneficial and rewarding relationships.  Then, when your business generation becomes a significant factor in decisions about your partnership or compensation, you can madly dash around at networking events, collecting business cards, and trying to come up with the right words that will make  strangers want to hire you as their trusted advisor. People with whom you desperately try to network will see you as self-interested and exploitive and will make themselves scare when they see you coming. You can contact potential women clients with whom you've had an exclusively personal relationship and suddenly and unilaterally change the terms of the relationship by asking them for business.  They will feel used and betrayed, but at least you will have “tried.”

3. When You Meet With A Prospective Client, Maintain Single-Minded Focus On Getting The Business

Putting pressure on yourself to leave the meeting with the business in hand will make you anxious.  Your focus will narrow and you'll primarily attend to the voice in your head that's telling you that you'd better make this sale or else catastrophe will follow.  Focusing on the conversation in your head will distract you from listening to the other person.

When there are pauses in the conversation you will talk more about yourself and your expertise without knowing whether the information is relevant to the other person's concerns. If you've prepared well in advance, you will have a canned pitch that's aimed at convincing people that you and your firm have singular capabilities.  This will ensure that you sound like every other lawyer from every other firm.  Always remember: you became a lawyer to sell, not to help.

4. Dominate The Conversation

As long as you're talking, the other person won't have the opportunity to tell you about her needs, goals, concerns, threats and opportunities.  After all, you only want the engagement, not the messiness of a relationship.  Why listen to the pressures the prospective client faces in his organization?  You have enough worries about your own position in your workplace.  In fact, you might even use the opportunity to complain about how hard you're working and indirectly convey how desperately you need to get this business.

5. Never Visit Clients Unless You Absolutely Have To

Although you may need to go to your clients' offices during the course of an engagement, there's no reason to visit when you're not working on a project with them.  Doing this would communicate a genuine interest in their success and the well-being of their organizations. Don't try to become a trusted advisor beyond any specific engagement.  This might put you in the position of having to advise the client against taking some action which would result in costly litigation and millions of dollars of revenue for your firm.

6. Always Remember That You Are The Expert

Keep in mind that as outside counsel your client should do as she's told.  Take charge of the project - collaboration will only reduce your control and prevent you from billing for more time. Never forget that if the client had the expertise to do the work, she’d have done it herself.  You were hired to get the work done and to meet the client's deadlines even if this requires your associates to work 24/7.  Although the client may experience you as arrogant and controlling, you can reassure yourself that you are right.

7. Think Short-Term

The route to trust is through real relationships.  There's no time for that if you want to be successful in your firm.  Relationships take time to develop.  They require genuine interest, time investment, commitment, consistency and continuity. The goals of a relationship are to develop a full understanding of the other person's needs so that you are in the best position to help.  This requires listening not only to what is said, but to how it is said; that is, attending to feelings as well as words.  This is all too "touchy-feely" and rarely produces immediate results.  Find those clients who are as uninterested in relationships as you are, make a great pitch, get in and out as quickly as you can, and above all else, make sure you get paid in full.

8. Make Meeting Your Firm's Billable Requirements A Higher Priority Than Developing And Serving Clients

The easiest way to meet billable requirements is to ask the firm's current rainmakers for work.  Becoming a service partner allows you to stay inside your comfort zone:  you don't have to leave your office to develop business and you don't have to worry about being scolded by management because your hours are sub-par.  

Bill for every second you spend with a client.  Never devote non-billable time learning about your client's business and career goals.  If you happen to think of your client while you're taking a shower, bill for that time.  While this may engender distrust and cause your clients to carefully audit your bills, it's the only way to prove to your firm that you're a "good soldier."  The alternative would require you to challenge the inconsistency between your firm’s rhetoric about encouraging business development and its rigid billing requirements.

9. Stay At A Firm That Requires 2400 Billable Hours And New Business Generation

When a firm's billable requirements make it impossible to find time for marketing activities, the only people who are likely to succeed are those who a senior partner is interested in grooming to take over the more senior attorney's book of business. Unless you are a likely beneficiary of such largesse (and this is improbably given your gender), the only reason you'd stay is in the hope that clients will somehow discover that you were the one who did all that great work they received. If you stay long enough, you're likely to lose not only your independence, but also your confidence.

10. Continue With A Firm That Raises Your Billing Rate So That It's No Longer Affordable For Your Clients

Once your clients can no longer afford your services, they'll have no choice but to go elsewhere.  Unless you want to work in a more client-friendly firm, you'll need to transition within your firm to a practice area serving clients whose budgets can easily absorb such high fees.  Although this may mean a steep learning curve as you master new technical skills and knowledge, and although you'll have to start from scratch in finding new clients, at least you won't have to make any really big changes in your life. 

For those of you who are brave of heart and determined to succeed despite the challenges, use this list as your business “conscience.” The common theme is a conscious effort to invest some of your precious time to create and sustain relationships. Then, and only then will you be able to leverage your strengths and experience to gain the success you’ve worked so hard to achieve in your career.


Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., is the founder of Lawyers Life Coach LLC, a firm providing professional development, career, business development and executive coaching services to attorneys and consultation to legal employers. Known for her expertise on issues of particular concern to women lawyers, her email newsletter, Beyond the Billable Hour ™ has been reprinted by 25 different bar association publications and many other print and electronic legal publications. She has addressed the ABA, NAWL, NALP, the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and numerous state and women's bar associations. She earned her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Rochester, received her coach training from the MentorCoach ™ program and currently serves on their faculty.


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