Business of Law

Want a Life? Get More Clients

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Stephen Fairley
Photo by Callie Lipkin

Thomas Ost was inside a hotel conference room thinking about clients. Or rather, the Tinley Park, Ill., attorney was thinking about how he can attract more of them to his solo practice in Chi­cago’s south suburbs. And he’s just a bit outside his comfort zone.

“The initial fear is stepping out of the cocoon of what you know,” says Ost, who specializes in estate planning, criminal law and divorce. “What I know is law. What I don’t know is marketing.”

But Ost had just attended a seductively titled lecture, “The Five Immutable Secrets to Building a Seven-Figure Law Practice While Staying Sane,” as part of a May conference on work-life balance, and he’s starting simple. He plans to set up face-to-face meetings with local clergy in hopes of developing new referral sources.

More clients, after all, mean a stronger business, which can lead to a more comfortable, balanced life.

The man behind the “five immutable secrets,” Rainmaker Institute CEO Stephen Fairley, likes simple. Fairley, a gregarious law firm marketing expert from Phoenix, is prone to big statements:

“The average attorney has three to five different referral sources,” he says to a group of lawyers. “Would you be interested if I could show you how to add a zero to that number?”

But he preaches concepts that are more common sense than secret. “There’s a huge gap between simple and easy,” he says. “The concepts are simple. Easy to implement? That’s where the gap is.” Fairley leans forward a bit and adds: “If it was easy to make a million dollars, nobody would be working at McDonald’s.”

Perhaps that’s why he drew eager attention from many of the 250 lawyers attending the inaugural Get a Life Conference. His secrets, aimed at lawyers in small firms, are crafted around this: To build a lucrative practice, lawyers need to embrace the principles of business building and find a way to implement them.

“You have to make the time,” says Independence, Mo., bankruptcy attorney Rachel Foley, a conference attendee who already employs many of the business-building strategies. “You have to learn to run the business or you’re never going to expand.”


A quick guide to Fairley’s secrets:

• You need the right people in the right places, including a business manager who could keep the firm running and even growing if you were gone for a month. Foley agrees: “I was out for two months,” she says, “and without [my business manager], my practice would have folded.”

• You need the right systems. “The problem with most law firms is they are run by people,” Fairley says. “What happens when your key person is hit by a truck or goes on vacation? The people run your systems; the systems run your law firm.”

Firms need specific plans for handling new clients, retaining current clients and educating clients about the types of referrals the firm wants and can handle. Fairley also touts a client referral system that includes building a database of potential referral sources, reaching out through letters, following up with a phone call and setting up face-to-face meetings.

• You need the right business development strategies. The best time to market, Fairley says, is when you don’t need more clients. “If you just closed a prospect on the phone, call every other prospect,” he says. “If you’re desperate for clients, it comes through in your attitude.” He advocates consistently seeking out new clients through referral systems, speaking engagements, formal and informal networking, and a strong online presence.

• You need an effective marketing message. Fairley cautions firms to steer clear of ineffective, costly mass advertising; firms should aim for a minimum return of five times on the investment. Firms also should measure the effectiveness of their strategies, for instance, by tracking website visits and incoming calls, and knowing how many became clients. And they should follow up on every prospect and referral source.

“You can drive traffic to your website,” he says, “but if you don’t have a system for following up, you won’t bring in business.”

• You need the right action plan. A good plan can be implemented right away, Fairley says, adding that he typically encourages firms to focus on the next 30 to 90 days.

A week after the talk, Ost had already visited three parishes to introduce himself and his services. “I don’t think I will get instant results,” he says. But he’s been inspired to make these personal connections.

“I think a core lesson from Stephen’s approach is that you can’t expect referrals to come from a sterile, impersonal relationship.”

Becky Beaupre Gillespie is a journalist who has written on work-life balance issues for several major metropolitan newspapers. Hollee Schwartz Temple is a professor at West Virginia University College of Law.

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