In difficult economic times, the knee-jerk reaction of many partners is to hunker down and hold on for dear life to the clients they already have. Smart partners, however, will use the weakening economy as a stepping stone to increase their books of business — perhaps dramatically — by deepening personal and business relationships with existing clients and, more importantly, seizing upon opportunities with new clients. These partners will emerge from the economic slowdown atop the heap, while the overly-cautious partners will miss critical opportunities to grow their client bases.

Strengthening Your Book of Business in a Weakening Economy

Don't Just Stay in Touch — Stay Connected

In uncertain times, your clients want your strategic advice, not just your legal bills. In an economic downturn like the US (and the world) is now experiencing, you can bet that your clients are concerned about the future — not just of their company, but their own futures as well. Too many partners see themselves narrowly as legal services providers, while clients often look to their outside lawyers for broader advice and guidance. Clients crave outside lawyers who know their business, in good and bad times, and who regularly play a broader role as advisors. If you have been doing your job right, your clients trust your advice and want your guidance, even if they don't always ask. Demonstrating to your clients that you can — and want to — engage in a broader advisory role will cement your relationship with the company and ensure that you are the person who is contacted in times of need, legal or otherwise. What are the best ways to put yourself on the fast track to a trusted advisor role with your client? Here are a few suggestions:
 
  • Connect with your clients regularly to check in, not just when you are hunting for new business or have news about one of their legal matters (or when you have the firms' Lakers tickets). Yes, clients are busy and don't want to be constantly harassed, but most will appreciate you checking in for 5-10 minutes every week or two just to say hello and to find out how they are coping with tough times. And of course, regularly talking to your client will give you insight as to internal company matters that may not quite require opening a new matter, but might be a topic worth bouncing off a trusted advisor in an informal call.
  • Add Google News Alerts for each of your clients to get immediate, daily, or weekly digest emails with links to news articles mentioning them. Although your firm's marketing department may already monitor client news, seeing the news regularly yourself will allow you to discuss, in real time, current events facing the client (or even perhaps alert your client to a newsworthy, but not necessarily legal, development). All you need to do is set aside a couple of minutes a day (or week) to skim and delete the alerts, mentally filing away a few facts for the next time you talk with the client. An investment of these few minutes in your client will almost certainly yield hours of work for you and your firm down the road.
  • Investigate the effects of the current economy on your clients' operations and be proactive about determining if other partners with your firm (or other clients of yours) may be able to help. For example, if your client is a manufacturer for whom you primarily have been providing M&A and securities advice, determine if they are in the midst of considering layoffs or plant closures. If so, offer up an informal call with one of your partners in your firms' labor and employment group to provide strategic guidance and counseling about the process. This sounds obvious, but if you wait until the news hits the wire, it's too late. Show your client that you care about their business by being proactive, not just reactive.
  • Invite your client to an outside speaking engagement or panel discussion where you or other members of your firm are presenting. This will not only give you a chance to interact with the client in an outside professional atmosphere (where you can demonstrate your legal prowess), but also may help the client satisfy some much-needed MCLE requirements. Better yet, invite the client to an internal MCLE presentation in your office. Again, this lets the client see you in a professional atmosphere and will also allow them to see and interact with others at your firm who may be able to provide professional services.
  • Think twice about inviting the client to a lavish meal at an exclusive restaurant or hosting them in the firm's luxury box at a sporting event, at least for now. If the reality of the client's world is large reductions in revenue, staff layoffs, and decreasing departmental budgets, such an event may not make the kind of ''connection'' you want. Instead, it may give the impression of how disconnected you and your firm are from the economic realities facing your client. A simple lunch or stopping by for a coffee may send a better message.

Use Your Down Time to Upgrade Your Client List

As noted above, the realities of the global slowdown are leading most companies to look for ways to shave expenses, including legal fees. Companies taking action to implement a reduction in their legal budgets may actually translate into opportunities for you to increase your book, although you'll need to do some legwork to make this happen. Here are some ideas that may help you grow your book in the face of diminishing legal budgets:
 
  • One way companies often seek to reduce costs is by reducing redundancy and implementing cost structure efficiencies, both internally and externally. While they may have been willing to deal with five, six, or even 20 firms in the past to spread work around, now they may be looking to save time — and money — by consolidating more of their legal work with one firm and negotiating a more favorable fee agreement. If you know that your client historically has used your firm for some, but not all, of its legal needs, it may be a good time to approach the client and make a pitch to handle a larger slice of the company's legal needs. Again, even if you are rebuffed, it will demonstrate that you are in tune with the client's objectives and trying to work with them to lower costs.
  • Another tactic for lagging economic times might be to revisit clients to whom you have made unsuccessful pitches over the past few years to check in with them to see whether they are happy with the firm they chose over yours. If a client is not happy with its current firm but hasn't made a decision to shift work to someone else (perhaps largely due to inertia), now might be a good time to remind them that your firm could be doing the job better and more efficiently. Even if it doesn't lead to an immediate transfer of work to you, it may result in the next pitch going more favorably.
  • One thing that most firms talk about but rarely do is cross-sell. In today's slower business times, it would benefit you to actually cross-sell your clients to other partners at your firm instead of just discussing how great it would be every year at the firm meeting, and then never following up. One way for you to increase your book is to show your partners that you are ready and willing to cross-sell your clients to them if they will do the same for you. To properly cross-sell, you need to get more acquainted with your clients' needs (as discussed above), and then make a list of partners at your firm who have a skill set that could help the client with the legal and strategic issues facing the client right now. Then go and talk with those partners (right now) and set up informal lunches or meetings (right now) with your clients to make the necessary introductions. Even if the meetings are informal and low-key, the expression of interest will be appreciated by the clients as a showing that you are thinking about their immediate needs. And, even if your cross-selling efforts don't result in an infusion of new business right away, they will be remembered and much appreciated both by the clients and your fellow partners, who will almost certainly return the favor by introducing you to their clients that you may be able to help. Don't be shy about approaching your partners to discuss cross-selling opportunities that may result in more work for you with your partners' clients. Cross-selling is a win-win-win — for you, your partners, and the client — and it actually works, but the trick is you have to do more than just talk about it.

Conclusion

Slower economic times don't necessarily mean that your book of business can't grow. In fact, if you take a few of the steps discussed above, are proactive, and take advantage of opportunities (while others may be content with the status quo), you might just see your book prosper while others' shrink.