Boutique Law Firms, Practice Pointers, Small Law Firms

From Biglaw to Boutique: Believing What You’re Selling

Tom Wallerstein

I recently attended a reception for prospective students who had been admitted to the University of Pennsylvania Law School. It was a great event which was graciously hosted by superstar Penn Law alum John Wilson of Shearman & Sterling.

I’m a huge fan of Penn Law for too many reasons to list here, and I tried to convey some of my enthusiasm to the prospective students. (Had I known at the time, I would have included Penn’s distinguishing and commendable compliance with ABA transparency standards.)

I remember when I had attended the admitted students reception prior to committing, way back in 1996. At that reception I met then-Dean Colin Diver, who asked me what other schools I was considering. I told him, and added that I had not yet heard back from Stanford, my top choice…

Dean Diver asked me where I hoped to practice, and I answered, truthfully, “San Francisco.” He then offered his advice that if I was accepted by Stanford, I should go there, but that he thought Penn was superior to my other options. Well, I didn’t get in to Stanford, and I ultimately followed Dean Diver’s advice and chose Penn over my other choices.

One big reason that I accepted Dean Diver’s recommendation of Penn over other schools was his comments about Stanford. His “statement against interest” gave him a tremendous credibility boost in my eyes, and made me open to his pitch favorably comparing Penn to other schools. If Dean Diver had told me that Penn was clearly a superior choice to every other school without exception, I would have discounted everything else he said.

I learned an important lesson from that which I have incorporated into many other contexts. For example, when I was an attorney at Quinn Emanuel, I had great success recruiting stellar candidates who were considering joining the firm. My secret was to be honest about the upsides and, more importantly, the downsides of working there. I used to tell candidates, “We work a lot of hours here. But if you are looking for early opportunity in a casual environment . . . .” I had a number of candidates tell me that my pitch worked precisely because I was forthcoming about the drawbacks.

I use that same method now when I do pitches for clients. Specifically, I try to give clients what I perceive to be the pros and cons of hiring my firm. For example, I might say, “If you need to have an AmLaw 100 or brand name firm for credibility at the Board level, then I understand I might not have the right firm for this engagement. But if you are more concerned about quality and efficiency than name recognition . . . .”

Or, I might say, “If the tax angle of your matter is really important, than my firm might not be the best fit because we don’t specialize in that. But if the complex litigation piece is more important, then we might be ideal . . . .” By emphasizing what your firm does not do, you can more credibly sell what your firm does do. This is itself an argument in favor of specialization.

In other words, when I am trying to sell my firm’s services, I try hard to give a prospective client the most honest assessment I can as to the pros and cons of hiring us. By thinking hard about the “cons,” I think I gain credibility when I explain the “pros.”

Of course, this assumes that the prospective client trusts that I am being honest and genuine. This is why, for me, “believing what you sell” is the true secret of business development.

I have talked to many attorneys who are not comfortable selling themselves. They can advocate for ridiculous positions on behalf of their clients, but they feel seedy when they try to urge a prospect to hire them. This is largely because they don’t really believe what they are selling, and that underlying dishonesty naturally makes them uncomfortable.

But if you think you really are a good choice for a certain matter, then selling to that client is a breeze. In fact, the word “selling” becomes something of a misnomer, because all you are really doing is providing accurate information about your honest perception of the client’s best interest. This isn’t difficult at all because it is the kind of thing you would do for your best friend, not to mention a prospective client.

Not surprisingly, selling what you believe in is also more effective than trying to sell something to someone who doesn’t need it. When you truly believe in what you are offering, your sincerity has a way of infecting everything you say. If you are loose with the truth, a client will know. Conversely, heart-felt honesty, integrity and passion can become almost palpable and create a connection with your prospect that makes sealing the deal much more likely. There are no business development strategies, tips, techniques, or tactics by which you can consistently sell something in which you don’t really believe.

What should you do if you think you really aren’t the best choice for the client? You don’t need to be honest to the point of recklessness and urge the client not to hire you. Instead, you should think hard about the value you offer, and try to think how you best distinguish yourself from your competitors. You may not be the absolute best attorney for a given gig, but you likely are not the worst, either. Every lawyer and firm brings unique strengths and weaknesses to the table; your goal is to identify those strengths of your own that you really believe in.

This same approach works when considering which arguments to present to a judge or jury. Every case involves its share of both good and bad facts. When you think of the theme or argument you want to present, always try to come up with something you can truly believe in. You may have a variety of colorable legal or factual arguments you could present, but try hard to focus on those you can believe in without equivocation. You will find that when you believe something, you can much more persuasively convince others to believe it, too.


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 tomwallerstein@coltwallerstein.com.

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