When Above the Law first covered my “adventure in shingle hanging,” I remember someone quipping that our only business came from attorney referrals and that we didn’t have our “own” clients. The comment wasn’t true, but I still found it interesting. Is a client who pays you money somehow not “your” client, or not a “real” client, just because the client was referred to you by another attorney? That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
But it is worth thinking about the different ways that solo and small law firms try to generate business. There is a valid distinction between approaching a prospective client and asking him to engage you, and approaching other lawyers and asking them to refer cases to you. I’m not sure one is necessarily superior to the other, but they are different approaches. I think of them as “direct” and “indirect” client solicitation.
I also distinguish “active” and “passive” methods. An active approach is where you identify your client and solicit them. A passive approach is where you do something that encourages clients to solicit you. Passive isn’t a pejorative; for example, a good website is an important part of passive business development.
So, I think business development efforts can fall into a matrix. Check it out, after the jump….
In other words, I think of four different combinations to describe marketing efforts: (1) Active / Direct; (2) Passive / Direct; (3) Active / Indirect; and (4) Passive / Indirect.
Here are examples of each:
Active / Direct Marketing: This is approaching a prospective client (direct) and asking them to hire you (active). In my firm, we actively monitor dockets for prospective cases and then rely on our contacts to make an introduction and make our pitch directly to the client. Both ambulance chasing and Biglaw beauty contests are active / direct marketing.
Passive / Direct Marketing: This is targeting prospective clients directly, but by doing something that is intended to make the client solicit you instead of asking the client to hire you. Hosting a seminar about new regulations in an industry is passive / direct marketing. The idea is that industry representatives will attend and later want to engage you. Sending a quarterly newsletter to businesses about employment topics is passive / direct marketing. Running an advertisement (“Have you been injured?”) is passive / direct marketing.
Active / Indirect Marketing: This is approaching a prospective referral source (indirect) and asking them to refer to you (active). Handing out business cards at a bar association meeting is active / indirect marketing.
Passive / Indirect Marketing: This is doing something intended to make referral sources send you business. Establishing perceived expertise in an area of law through blogging or twitter is passive / indirect marketing. A legal blog is passive / indirect marketing because the author is writing mostly to other attorneys, not prospective clients, and not actively soliciting business.
Some efforts might not fit neatly into only one of my categories, and you don’t need to categorize every business development initiative. If you do that, you’re bound to spend some time wondering what to choose. My point is only to consider the differences, including the strengths and weaknesses, between targeting potential clients versus targeting potential referral sources, and between active versus passive approaches.
I think there is a role for each of the four approaches. I’ve read several articles suggesting that it is more important to attend events that are populated by prospective clients instead of just other lawyers. That is just a debate over direct versus indirect approaches to business development, and I think there is a role for both.
I also think there is an important role for both active and passive approaches. Asking for work is important, but establishing yourself as an expert in a field can also be very potent marketing even if you are not actively asking for business.
I’ve never studied marketing and my quick Google search shows that some people use “direct” and “active” synonymously, and “indirect” and “passive” synonymously. Maybe my terms aren’t the most precise. But I do know that a client can be “your” client whether they were referred to you by another lawyer or whether you knocked on their door. And a client is a real client, whether they hired you because you asked them to or because they heard something you said and chose to approach you.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether you get your client through efforts that are active or passive, direct or indirect. A client is “your” client, and is a “real” client, whenever they are willing to pay for your services.
Tom Wallerstein lives in San Francisco and is a partner with Colt Wallerstein LLP, a Silicon Valley litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on high tech trade secret, employment, and general complex-commercial litigation. He can be reached at email@example.com.