Edge International

Get Retained Before You Get Retained

Mike White

Cultivating both relationships and opportunities is a game of quantity and quality. I encourage my law firm business development clients to focus on establishing many discussion threads with prospects, or at least suspected prospects. It’s hard to assume you’ve got a new engagement coming in the door when you have three or four active discussion threads; it’s a lot easier to be confident when you’ve got 12-15 active discussion threads. Active dialogue puts you in a position to be specific and link what you’re proposing to do for the prospect to a particular priority they have that falls outside of the job they might want you to do. “Let’s plan to have us work on the next deal that looks like xyz, and in the meantime I can help you put together a post-acquisition integration checklist along with your outside  management consultant that is helping you absorb the businesses you acquire….”

Common challenges reliably emerge with lawyers who actually engage in a lot of relationship cultivating outreach, namely:

  1. They have difficulty establishing a sufficient number of early stage discussion threads. Ideally you should feel pretty overwhelmed with the number of early stage “first” or “second” meeting discussions you are getting calendared – if you’re not feeling overwhelmed with inbound front-of-the-funnel activity, then you’re probably not spending enough time populating your funnel. I give my clients credit for engaging in outreach to force multiplying “connectors” as well as suspected prospects – connectors lead to prospects!
  2. Many well developed discussion threads plateau and it’s not clear how to implement a “buying decision.”

Relative to item #2 above:

  • The key to conversion with a reluctant prospect is getting the company to begin consuming some law firm service or insight before they want to “buy” a legal service. The timing here is important- by getting a prospect to consume anything of value from you at this stage means you have to be helping the prospect deal with a current “job to be done;” so… make sure you understand fully all of the “jobs to be done” (credit to Clay Christensen, the father of “disruptive innovation” methods) within the portfolio of your prospect. Examples: creating an after-action review process of litigation of a certain type to guide litigation-avoidance business operations training; developing a matter-specific legal project management worksheet to manage matters; building out a library of forms and templates – with companion training – to make the law department more self-sufficient and less reliant on outside lawyers.
  • You need to understand the pain points and facts on the ground well enough to propose helping them at the earliest stage – if you’re going to persuade a suspect to begin consuming your legal services or insights before they are ready, you’d better be proffering an intensely bespoke/customized/personalized proposition reflecting their particulars. Once you learn about all of their “jobs to be done,” you are in a position to be helpful. PEOPLE BUY FROM PEOPLE!
  • Getting prospects to consume any of your work product before a prospect actually wants to “buy” anything also requires you to make this initial experience very risk free. Of course, providing them with value-add “freeware” in hopes they will ultimately start paying can be a useful tactic but it doesn’t establish your pricing power. Alternatively, get them to validate the value you are conferring by requiring them to pay; give them “off-ramps” to stop consuming (and therefore stop paying) and keep them in control of the way they want to consume your wisdom/work product- prospects need to feel in control.
  • Prospects will also bite if the “idea” you propose moves forward a clear near-term priority.

So, think about conversion and decision-implementation in the above terms – combining the back-end conversion strategies with the front-end discussion-thread creation strategies, and you will have a healthy funnel!

Closing Strategies: When Prospects Are Ready to Buy

Mike White

“I’ve spent 18 months cultivating a relationship with an in-house litigation manager who says all of the right things but we have yet to get a lick of work. I don’t know whether to pull the plug on my efforts or keep buying him lunch . . . .”

After spending many years working with law firms on growth issues, I hear this refrain pretty much all of the time. Characterizing what is at work here as merely a “closing” problem is too simplistic; trying “harder” to persuade a prospect to do something he or she has not yet decided to do generally won’t do the trick. Put another way, “constructive sentiment” alone won’t cause prospects to hire you – something more is generally needed in order to get a prospect to act on sentiment and to actually implement a buying decision.

When lawyers find themselves in these straits I suggest they rely on three strategies best described with the following soundbites: i) Isolate, ii) Find the Movement, iii) Create Accountability


Prospects want and need lawyers to do the thinking for them, but this presumes that you have learned enough about their landscape of responsibility (broadly defined) to form some pretty intelligent opinions about where your firm’s capabilities may fit best. It’s hard for companies to make first-time commitments to law firms around a category of work; conversely, it’s often easier for prospects to respond warmly to a more “surgical strike.” Moreover, prospects are themselves very practical, and any new vendor they’re thinking of using for the first time must reflect a similar practical sensibility and literacy. It’s not very difficult to figure out what legal needs match up well with a full service firm’s substantive capabilities; it’s a bit more challenging, however, to understand the political decision-making landscape of a prospect well enough to isolate the first-time retention decisions that are actually achievable. I encourage lawyers to isolate a specific issue/matter that falls within a particular category of legal work that could be a good starting point for a relationship, and take into account practical concerns weighing on the minds of decision makers about which they learn while building the relationship.

Find the Movement: The “Epi-Priorities”

In trying to launch a relationship with a new prospect, you should work hard to find out about the peripheral but nonetheless important managerial priorities of your decision makers. Don’t be afraid to ask the question, “Other than achieving great outcomes on the matters handled by your outside law firms, what less obvious but important priorities do you and others in the department care about . . . ?” These priorities tend to break down into managerial, operational, and process issues that “lay” senior management or the GC is asking the law department to advance – I call these “epi-priorities,” or not-so-obvious priorities. The sweet spot “first matter” opportunity typically reflects a solid match between substantive legal need with legal capability, and an intersection of one or two epi-priorities. Listed below are examples of epi-priorities for which you might look:

Legal Process Improvement

  • LPM
  • Other matter management methods


  • AFAs
  • Shared risk approaches to fees
  • Linkage with matter management processes

After Action Review

  • Front end operational gaps and failures
  • Management of the matter itself

Enterprise Risk Assessment

  • Become part of the front end business planning cycle
  • Hang out with Marsh, Aon, Wells Fargo, BB&T, Lockton, Willis, or other business insurance risk management consultants
  • Combat “event-driven” nature of litigation focused dialogue

Relationship Brokerage

  • There is no better, quicker or easier way to build up equity with people

Political Issues

  • Repositioning the law department to become more consequential within company
  • Learning about and advancing career aspirations of persons of consequence (“Where do you want to be in three years?” “What do you want to be doing in 24 months?”)


  • The managerial vocabulary of all departments and their performance


  • Essential for law departments that need to get more credit for their successes


  • What technology and software applications are law departments and their law firms using to become more efficient and effective?
  • Litigation management software systems, client dashboards, project management software, etc.


The concept of “accountability” really refers to the point in time when an outside lawyer needs to cash in on the equity accumulated throughout the relationship cultivation process. Relationship building earns you permission to suggest a particular intersection between your law firm’s capabilities and the prospect company’s needs.

“I’d like to share with you some thoughts I have about where we might be able to grow our relationship this year in ways that I think would be beneficial to you. Would you mind grabbing a cup of coffee with me to discuss this at some time when your schedule has cleared out a bit . . . ?”

Yes, you’ve signaled to the prospect that you want to have a business discussion about where it might make sense to work more closely with each other. More importantly, however, you’ve also suggested that whatever great thoughts you have will be supported with specific benefits you believe they will derive from working on the opportunity you’ve “isolated” for them. “I’ve done my homework, we’ve spent time with each other, I’ve shown patience, and I’ve put myself in a position to think actively about where it might make sense to kick off a relationship given my knowledge of both your substantive needs and epi-priorities.”

So get on with it. Capture more new clients in 2016: isolate, find the movement, and inject accountability!