Minnesota Lawyer - Thoughts on establishing a successful law practice Page 1 of 4
July 26, 2004
Thoughts on establishing a successful law practice
by By Steven H. Silton
The process of building a law practice, like law itself, does not have any hard and fast rules. What I have done to establish and build a
law practice over my nine-year career is not universally applicable to all lawyers. Moreover, marketing techniques and practices are
generally passed down from one generation of lawyers to another.
I have been fortunate to work with a number of prolific marketers with massive law practices, including Bill Kampf and Marshall Tanick.
In developing my own unique marketing strategy, I have done my best to emulate them to the extent that their techniques were
compatible with my personality.
With the aforementioned disclaimer and appropriate credit given, the following is a brief list of what I have used to build my practice and
my recommendations for establishing and building a law practice.
Give yourself to the law
Very few professions permit what the law allows us privileged lawyers. We are afforded a very high standard of living — particularly for
the general lack of financial risk we are asked to bear. We get to deal with complex problems (not our own), and use an ancient but
evolving set of rules to solve them. We get to deal with generally intelligent people and compete on what is often a fair field. We are
unfettered by time and space, and can work our own schedules in an environment of our choosing — at home if we like. We can take
almost unlimited time off and incorporate what most people would describe as leisure activities into our work life.
For that, we are required to work and act like professionals. In my opinion, this means that as practicing lawyers we are always lawyers
and always representing clients. No client wants a lawyer for whom law is what he or she does. Instead, clients want a lawyer for whom
being a lawyer is who they are.
It is a new trend in law schools to discuss the need for “balance” in our working life. Not only do I believe that “balance” in the working life
of a lawyer is unrealistic, but counterproductive to building a law practice. It sets up unrealistic expectations that not only ironically lead
to the type of job dissatisfaction that “balance” is purportedly trying to avoid, but also leads to bad lawyering and bad client skills. If you
want to be able to leave the office every day at a set time, be a teacher. If you want to turn your cell phone off when you get home, (or
worse yet not have a cell phone) find another job. If you don’t want to answer e-mails during “The Tonight Show,” don’t be a lawyer.
Law is a 24/7 profession. Clients problems generally do not coincide with the working day. The ability to develop a practice is dependent
on your clients’ trust that you will be there to solve their problems. The ability to solve problems depends on actually working on them
when they arise.
Provide quality work
Every great rainmaker I have known is one of the best lawyers in their particular field. The concept that some lawyers are meant to bring
in the work, while other lawyers are meant to do the work is a myth of origin unknown, which has infected a number of lawyers and law
firms. This is not to say that some lawyers with excellent legal skills but a dearth of social skills don’t exist, and that those lawyers are not
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essential in the practice of law in almost any size firm, only that lawyers with large practices invariably have excellent legal skills.
Clients retain and continue to work with lawyers due to the trust in the legal skills and judgment of the particular lawyer. Just think of the
adjectives clients use to describe their attorney: good, smart, tough, hardworking, diligent and persistent. I have never heard someone
refer to their lawyer, at least in a positive light, as “charming, a good story teller, can really hold their booze, etc.” A bad lawyer,
regardless of how dynamic his or her personality, will not be able to consistently maintain clients.
It is axiomatic that it is easier to keep a client than get a new one. Once a positive attorney-client relationship is established, it is very
tough to break. Clients generally forgive minor mistakes and bad results if they trust in their attorney. However, the easiest way to lose a
client is to do bad work or worse yet seem inattentive or disinterested. Never miss a deadline, a court appearance or show up to a client
meeting even a minute late. All work product should be carefully proofread and “perfect paper” should be the goal.
In addition to maintaining existing client relationships, doing exceptional quality work provides the additional benefit of reputation and
brand enhancement. My good friend Karl Speak, a brand expert and author of “Be Your Own Brand,” has described a personal brand as
the accumulation of personal experiences regarding particular products or services. If you get the reputation or brand of being a bad
lawyer, inattentive or tough to reach, your personal brand will be weak, and it is difficult if not impossible to build a practice.
In contrast, a personal brand as a good, honest, hardworking lawyer will act to perpetuate a successful practice even when you are not
actively marketing. In other words, your “brand” actually markets for you.
This is extremely important regardless of whether you represent a few select clients on a number of matters (as is the case with most
business lawyers), or a great many clients on individual matters (as is usually the case in personal injury, family law and criminal law).
Your brand extends and expands exponentially, and as such, it is essential to building a law practice that your personal brand be
Work to solve problems
“The operation was a success, but the patient died.” In law school we are taught law and procedure (the operation), but are not taught
business or problem solving (saving the patient).
Every legal problem is actually a practical and business issue, with multiple solutions, some that might not even be of the legal nature.
The key as a lawyer is to provide the cheapest, most economical solution to the problem.
Some of my most effective legal representation involved the provision of nonlegal services. For instance, on one occasion, I was
retained to represent a party in a corporate dissolution. Aware that neither party could afford to buy the other parties’ interest, and
wishing to avoid liquidation, I was able to find a third-party buyer. This resulted in a happy client, as well as a happy opposing party.
Providing process is often the easiest way to avoid facing the underlying issue facing your clients. Lawyers, unable to solve (or often
comprehend) the underlying problem, often use excessive process to mask this lack of comprehension. However, clients are rarely if
ever impressed with your legal maneuvering. Most of the time, they merely want to be extricated from the legal problem they are in and
get back to their core competencies. Anytime a client says to you, “I don’t care what it costs, this is principle,” understand that you will
lose the client after the litigation. In contrast, working to find the most practical solution to a problem will generally provide the basis for
continuing legal work.
Develop a broad network
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Everyone has relationships in the community. Everyone goes to the doctor, has some leisure activities, has families, etc. This initial
network is essential to the initial stage of building a practice. Make sure your entire network knows you are a lawyer looking for work and
that you would like to help them.
Work to broaden your network
This is probably the area in which the majority of discussions on building a law practice focus. I will spend less time on it than most, as I
believe lawyers are generally pretty good at this.
Once a network has been established, work to broaden and deepen it. Join community organizations, become active in your religious
institution, participate in the political party of your choosing, write and lecture at continuing legal education seminars. Most importantly,
do what you are good at and build your network and contacts consistent with your personality and skills.
Make the ask
I recently served as the chair of the American Diabetes Association Celebrity Art Gala and learned a new phrase — “make the ask.” The
phrase no doubt is derived from the sales concept of “closing.”
Both concepts are relevant to building a law practice, although it is something that the legal profession treats as a bit of a “white
elephant.” All successful marketers are aware of the necessity of expressing the desire for work, and all do it. Yet few, if any, lawyers
talk about this crucial aspect of legal marketing. This probably results from the fact that lawyers, like doctors, consider themselves highly
skilled professionals who should be recognized and sought out for their skill and talent alone. Law, unlike medicine, does not work that
The reality is that very rarely will clients seek you out. Even individuals who know you, like you and trust you may not look to you as a
lawyer until you request the honor of being their counsel. It is amazing to me how many very talented lawyers I know with established
and extensive networks have little or no law practice. The only explanation for this is their inability, or refusal, to overtly and
unequivocally request that their contacts send them legal work. Regardless of whether this refusal is out of insecurity (a fear of rejection)
or some belief that as a lawyer it is beneath us to ask for work, the net sum is the same — a limited return on investment.
Know your clients
As discussed above, you must “give yourself to the law.” Similarly you must give yourself to your clients. Get to know them and
understand them and their business.
In addition to providing quality legal services, it is essential that your relationships with your clients exist outside of the realm of their legal
problems. If your clients like golf, go golfing with them. If your clients like fishing, fish with them. Learn your clients’ likes and dislikes and
participate in them. The closer the relationship, the more clients will accept the disappointments so common in the law without looking
for new counsel.
In addition, get to know your client’s business on your own time, understand the business practicalities, distribution issues and cash flow
issues. This has the dual effect of making you more sensitive to the legal problems of your clients and confirming your commitment to
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Solve all legal problems
For a while I was the co-host of Twin Cities Business Radio with Vance Opperman, and had the privilege of interviewing a number of
great Minnesota business leaders including newly elected members to the Minnesota Business Hall of Fame.
One of those inductees was Minneapolis attorney John Mooty, who indicated that he believed that one of the things that made him so
successful was that as a young lawyer he had handled a variety of legal problems, from estate planning to litigation.
This advice is sage as clients look to their lawyers for a variety of issues; the ability to talk intelligently about them is essential to
maintaining quality relationships. This extends far beyond legal matters, as your clients will have tax, accounting, insurance and other
needs, that while not specifically within your skills set, you can still provide information, or at least a referral.
Capitalize on luck
More important than any of your skills or hard work, is a little bit of luck. Like “making the ask,” luck is something most lawyers tend not
to talk about, believing that all of their successes are directly related to their immense skill. However, to deny the role luck can play in our
practice development inhibits our ability to captivate on it when it arises.
One of the first cases I handled when I opened my own practice was a breach of contract matter involving a small vacuum cleaner
business. The case went all the way to trial, the defendant fighting vehemently despite no legitimate chance of victory (or money to pay
the judgment). Following a three-day jury trial, the matter resulted in a full victory for my client.
My client and I were toasting our victory with Black Label beer — it was 3:00 p.m. in Mankato — when he indicated to me that this was
the biggest victory I would ever have. Explaining to him that his chances of actually recovering the judgment (and my one-quarter
contingent fee) were slim did not dampen his enthusiasm for my “big” victory. As it turns out, this client owned a number of very
successful businesses, many of which needed ongoing legal services, and he introduced me to many of my current clients. His
prognostication turned out to be accurate, despite the seemingly dubious nature of his prediction.
In sum, building a law practice is like working on any successful relationship. It takes commitment, diligence and hard work, as well as a
little luck. However, the payoff is substantial. A large law practice provides economic security within the legal field, as well as substantial
Steven H. Silton is a shareholder and director with the Twin Cities law firm of Mansfield, Tanick & Cohen, P.A. practicing in the areas of
corporate and commercial law, with a sub-emphasis in commercial and complex bankruptcy matters. He is a regional and national writer
and lecturer on business and bankruptcy related issues.
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