You might be the smartest attorney in the world, but you can’t run a law firm without clients. And believe it or not, getting clients and practicing law are two distinct skills.
Getting your first client can be stressful, nerve-wracking, and quite humbling. And for the most part, it’s a two-step process: mental preparation and some old-fashioned pounding the pavement.
Be Realistic and Lower Your Expectations
Remember your first kiss? It was probably memorable because it was awkward, not what you expected, and resulted in more laughs than romance. It was also memorable because you got it over with, and you no longer were that kid who had never kissed anyone.
Please don’t kiss your clients. That’s generally bad (see every model rule ever). But like your first kiss, your first client is going to memorable for all the reasons you don’t expect.
You are not going to represent Google in your first case. You are not going to defend a wrongfully accused defendant in a high-profile murder trial. You are not going to shake the foundations of the legal community with new precedent.
Those are all great goals, but nobody gets there on their first attempt.
I still have lots of phone calls, coffees, and lunches with young attorneys who are about to go solo. The biggest assumption many of them make is that they will “only do the big cases.” All of us only want to do the big cases. It just doesn’t work that way. There’s a reason lawyers always talk about their big cases — they just don’t happen every day.
Keep that in mind when you are trying to land your first client. If you think you are too smart or have too high of a GPA to draft a basic estate plan for $300, then you need to re-think your decision to start a law firm.
Once you have humbled yourself, you are ready for step two.
Recognize the Value in Gaining Experience, Not the Money
Good news: you have swallowed your pride. Bad news: swallow it even more.
I’m hoping your business plan accounts for, and assumes, that you will not make much money for the first few months.
Depending on your life experience and your experiences in law school, you probably need to focus on learning how to be a lawyer. There are a number of skills you need to learn: how to sell a client on you, how to talk to opposing counsel, how to counsel a client, how to run a business, how to keep your business moving forward, how to deal with the unexpected, and how to deal with a bad client.
That does not mean you should give away your time. One of the things you need to learn is that your time is valuable. Once you start valuing your time, so will your clients.
What all that means is that in the long-term, you need to develop skills that put you in a position to regularly succeed as an attorney. Everyone can get lucky and land one big client or case. The attorneys that regularly get those cases get them because they have a reputation for being a good attorney. They also have strong client relationship skills. And they probably know how to run a business too.
If you aren’t ready to take on “regular old cases” or think you’re going to strike it rich with your first client, you will go out of business before you get your first client.
Every client has monetary value, including your first client. But the more important value in your first client is the opportunity to gain experience. The valuable experience might not even be the legal work; it could be the experience gained in learning to manage client expectations. Or it could be dealing with an unexpected good or bad event in the case.
Whatever the experience is, it is experience you currently lack. Now that you have no expectations and recognize the non-monetary value in getting experience, you are actually ready to take a case and a client.
Here’s an easy way to get your first client: let other attorneys know you are looking for work. If you are lucky enough to be working in a shared office space, tell those attorneys you are looking for work.
Don’t send them an email. Don’t leave a note in their mailbox. Go to their office and introduce yourself. Tell them who you are. Tell them you just started. Tell them you are looking for work. Tell them you are ready to take on whatever — because you are looking to gain experience. If you have this conversation with ten attorneys, I can almost guarantee one will send you a case. It might not be a great case, but it will be a case — your first case.
If an attorney tells you “I don’t really refer many cases out,” offer to help out on a case. Don’t offer to work for free. But you can say something like, “I’m really looking for some experience in a civil case and I’ve heard you are an awesome attorney. Any chance I can help out on a case?”
By working with another attorney, you are not gaining your first client. But you are gaining an opportunity to learn new skills, and to showcase your skills to another attorney that can send you clients in the future.
Even if you don’t share an office with other attorneys, you can take another attorney out for coffee (it’s cheaper than lunch) and have the same conversation. Other attorneys are the single best way to get client referrals. There is a common theme here, though: you need to put in some face-to-face time and effort to get referrals.
Sending an email is lazy, impersonal, and unmemorable.
If someone doesn’t return your request for coffee, ask again. If they still ignore you, forget it. They aren’t worth your time anyway. It may not be flattering to beg for clients, or beg for work, but it will get results.
Another option is to use a referral service. Stay away from “lead generators” or “national” law firms that want to send you their local cases. Those can be malpractice bombs waiting to go off. But referral services from your local bar associations could be a nice starting point for four reasons:
- Local bar associations are unlikely to use unethical or illegal referral practices.
- Clients use them. I know plenty of other attorneys that get clients from the bar association.
- A local bar association referral usually means the potential clients are actually looking to hire an attorney, versus looking for free legal advice.
- The fees for referrals from the local bar associations are not unreasonable.
Announce Yourself to the World
Nobody knows you are in business until you tell them you are in business. So let everyone know that you are open for business and ready for clients.
As a starting point, make sure you have a working phone number and website. Even if your website just has your picture, name, and contact info, that is better than nothing. And it is much better than “coming soon!” It takes approximately ten minutes —maybe an hour — to create a static page with basic info.
Then start yelling from the rooftops, blow up Twitter, have coffee/lunch/drinks with everyone you know. You don’t have to make it awkward, just be yourself, and your new endeavors will certainly become a topic of conversation.
That said, use the opening of a new business to be more self-promotional than you usually are. If you are reluctant to promote yourself, use this as your first chance to get over that. You are no longer just practicing law, you are also running a business.
Getting your first client is not easy. But with the right mental approach and some hustle, you’ll have a full caseload before you know it.
Originally published 2016-01-11. Updated 2020-01-22.