Building your Book of Business – Not Just for Partners

You need to make yourself indispensable at your job.

In case you hadn’t heard, the legal job market’s still hurting. Barely half of all 2012 grads have long-term, full-time legal jobs. Yikes. You mean you didn’t go to law school so you could ask someone if they wanted whipped cream on that Frappuccino?

But no matter the cause to the glut of legal grads these days (which has been the subject of many other articles), if you’re already out there with a JD Sheepskin and one of the coveted law jobs, you’re probably past the point of caring why it’s happening. Instead, you’re probably wanting to make sure you keep that job — or if you’re a solo make sure you keep the lights on.

In order to keep your job, you need to make sure your firm has clients. Take an active role and start building your own book of business. I want to share some things that have worked for my neighborhood practice.

And I promise at the end, I’ll tell you what the picture at the top of this post is about.

Say “Hello” to Everyone

Think about how many people you walk by on any given day without even looking up from your smartphone because you’re updating your Facebook status. Every one of those people is a potential future client, and you’re busy with cat pictures.

The handsome young couple down the corner, One-Eyed-Nick, Crazy Cat Lady, or even just your Friendly Neighborhood Postman — just say “Hello!” You’ll catch people off guard. You might even strike up a brief conversation. But more than that, these folks will begin to recognize you. While you might start off as “that weird guy who says ‘Hi'” every day”, over time you become “that criminal defense lawyer whose office is around the corner.” Which brings me to my next point.

Carry Business Cards Everywhere and Pass Them Out to Everyone

I have been to several lawyer networking events recently, and I have been flabbergasted when I ask another lawyer for his card, and they don’t have any. Naturally, I immediately forget who these lawyers are.

Your wallet or purse should always have at least 5-10 business cards in it at any given time. Any time you meet someone new, you should be sure to 1) let them know what you are a lawyer; and 2) give them your card.

Of couse, there’s a certain amount of social grace and tact required when doing this (e.g., don’t shout “I’M A LAWYER!” and throw a handful of cards into a crowded room). But if you do it right, each person you strike up a conversation with leaves with three things: 1) a good impression of you; 2) knowing that you’re a lawyer; and 3) your card with your contact information.

And don’t cheap out on business cards, either. A cheap business card is like a limp handshake. Use high quality stock, and find a designer instead of using the generic instantly-recognizable templates available on so many cheap-as-free business card websites which-shall-not-be-named-but-I-am-pretty-sure-you-know-what-I-am-talking-about.

Wear a Suit Everyday

You’re a professional. Dress like one. I’ve found that just by walking around my neighborhood in a suit, I’ve had people approach me and ask if I was a lawyer. (I’ve also had people call me Peter Parker and Clark Kent. Heck, I’ll take it.) I understand that maybe a full business getup isn’t always the favorite attire of folks these days, but as I see it, by dressing like professional, you’re communicating success. And what client wouldn’t want to go to a successful lawyer?

With this tip, I have anecdote, told to me by one of the most successful trial lawyers in Pennsylvania. This particular lawyer has floor seats for our local basketball team, and wears a suit to every. single. game. While enjoying the game one night, this lawyer was approached by another person at the game, who said: “you look like a lawyer. Are you a lawyer?” Naturally, the lawyer answered “Yes”, and struck up a conversation. The result of this conversation was a new client with an excellent case for that lawyer. All because he wore a suit to a basketball game.

And this works. While I’m not a sports fan, I do wear a suit to the local watering holes when I play bar trivia. Often, I’m the only guy there in a suit. And I’ve had that same conversation. And I’ve gotten clients. All because I looked like a lawyer.

Oh, don’t forget to keep your pockets stocked with business cards.

Join a Non-Profit Board or Local Civic Association

Forget BNI or other sorts of formal networking events. You want to meet people and build your client base? Do it organically  by getting your face out there through work with local organizations.

Find a local non-profit who does work that interests you and reach out to them about joining their board of directors. You live in an area with a civic or neighborhood association? Join it, and get involved in leadership. Why? First, it’s good work that needs to be done. Second, you’ll be joining the ranks of civc-minded successful folks. It’s helpful to know successful people.

Don’t expect direct business from other board members immediately — it won’t happen. But over time, you’ll get to know these folks better and better, and then you’ll get to know other folks in their social circles, and maybe someday one of them will need a lawyer. Get it?

By joining these organizations, you’ll also get to know some of the most-respected and well-connected people in your community. These are good people to know, as they’re prime referral sources.

In my first year of practice, I joined the board of directors of a local theater, was elected Chair of the Zoning Committee of my local civic association, joined the neighborhood business association, served as a class representative to my school’s alumni network, and helped form a neighborhood crime watch. I have spent hundreds of unpaid hours building relationships with the folks in these organizations. But you know what? The connections I’ve made are priceless, and will pay off for years to come. Also, as a result of my work with non-profits, I got to be on The People’s Court. Which is a good story to tell over lunch. Speaking of which…

Don’t Eat Lunch at Your Desk Every Day

As the inimitable Brian Tannebaum says:

Eating tuna sandwiches at your desk is a quick road to nothing. Lawyers who pride themselves in “never” going out to lunch are the same insufferable bastards that “never” go on vacation, but need to. … Go out to lunch. Meet someone. Develop a relationship outside your online world. There’s no one to impress in the office.

You know what’s in your office? Four walls, a desk, a computer, a window (if you’re lucky), and you with your tuna breath. Blecch.

You know what isn’t there? Potential clients.

Budget money to go out to lunch a few times a month — even if it’s only to the burger shack on the corner. Introduce yourself to the owner of the joint. Wear a suit. Pass out cards. And guess what? You’ll get calls.

Join Lawyer Associations

Meeting other lawyer means 1) you get to be known in the legal community; 2) you find potential referral sources; 3) you find lawyers to whom you feel comfortable referring cases you don’t handle.

Have an interest in Maritime Law? Join your local bar association’s Maritime committee. Meet other lawyers of the sea. Find criminal defense particularly fascinating? Join NaCDL or your state’s equivalent.

Bonus: as you meet attorneys with more knowledge and practical experience than you, and you keep seeing them around, you build relationships with them and can end up with mentors. Through my attorney associations, I’ve now gained several mentors whom I can call when I have procedural question, need a sample motion, or simply want to know a bit about the judge I’m in front of next week.

Do Good Work, Well

Sure, this has been discussed plenty before, but it’s always worth mentioning. All of the above advice is useless unless you’re someone other people can trust to handle their matters or referrals.

But Do Fun Stuff Too

At the beginning of this piece, I promised I’d tell you what the picture at the top of this piece was all about

Well, that’s me and Jordan at our neighborhood association’s chili cook off last year. We’ve done it two years in a row, now. Yes, I’m wearing a Screw Ewe tie. Yes, Jordan’s wearing a cheesesteak hat.

This year, we suited up and handed out our “Occupy Chili” to hundreds of hungry neighbors, reporters, and local celebrities. We stocked our table not only with delicious chili, but promotional materials and business cards. Did we get any direct clients out of it? Not yet. But I gave out a box of business cards, met scores of people, and had a great time while doing it.

Now get out of your office and start building your book of business. Or go hang out on JD Underground or a scamblog. Whichever you think will get you more clients.


  1. Avatar Keith Lee says:

    This is one of those things that should be glaringly obvious to lawyers, but for whatever reason, it isn’t.

    In most situations:

    Lawyer with no book of business = expendable/replaceable.

    Lawyer with book of business = necessary/indispensable.

  2. Avatar Matt Willens says:

    Good stuff Leo. I think if you ask, most experienced lawyers will say that they wish they had learned the business of being a lawyer in law school and early in their careers.

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