Client Intake: Why Finding the Right Fit Matters

By Tracy Schorn

May 26, 2017

Mary Ellen Hickman, Hickman Consulting PartnersWant to know the secret to getting more of the right clients? Mary Ellen Hickman, head of Hickman Consulting Partners, has learned a lot from dealing with different kinds of clients in her over 20 years of business and marketing strategy consulting work both in the United States and overseas. Hickman, a presenter at one of the D.C. Bar Practice Management Advisory Service’s Lunch and Learn sessions, shares with the D.C. Bar her strategies for screening out clients that don’t add value to one’s practice.

Is “how to get more of the right clients” an exercise in avoiding the wrong sorts of clients? What should an attorney watch out for during client intake meetings?

One of the most important skills to develop is the ability to quickly screen out clients who aren’t a good fit for your practice. When starting up or going through a slower cycle, it may be tempting to accept a borderline client or two—but it’s better for your practice to hold the line and screen them out. Clients who aren’t a fit use too much of your working hours and energy for too little revenue.

Common red flags:

  • Highly disorganized clients. They won't be able to give you the information you need to do your job well.

  • Those who don't respond at all when contacted three times just aren't ready. Instead, ask when they’d like to hear from you again.

  • Those who want to meet more than twice before signing a contract typically aren't serious.

  • A client who nitpicks your well-written contract will either micromanage your work or be too scared to start. No trust = not a good fit.

  • Those who demand a discount up front either can't pay or don't value your work.

  • An excessively long sales process most often signals dysfunction or poor decision making.

  • Those who appear needy will be much too expensive to serve.

What are the unique challenges to marketing yourself as a lawyer?

There are a few regulations around marketing that attorneys need to watch out for (branding yourself as an “expert” is one). The industry is typically quite aggressive in pursuing attorneys [that it feels has] crossed a professional or ethical line.

We find that lawyers tend to have more difficulty quantifying the value they bring to their clients and demonstrating the value of their work in the client’s language. Many attorneys have told us that their work is seen as a “commodity” or an expense, instead of a valuable investment in the future of a business or in moving through a difficult personal event. We frequently quantify the value that attorneys bring to their clients—meaning, we put specific numbers around the value that attorneys bring to their clients, and include this in attorneys’ talking points and messaging. If your work is seen as a commodity or expense, you haven’t successfully demonstrated or quantified the value of your work. Attorneys’ skills are incredibly valuable and absolutely essential.

Most lawyers work through a referral system. Do you see social media/online platforms as upending those traditional referral streams, or complementing them?

Referrals are an excellent source of business, and smart attorneys cultivate good referral sources. Social media is a more public form of word of mouth, so it complements those referral streams. One of the partners of a client of ours grew his practice primarily through responding to the section-specific listserv of the bar association; you’ll see that we show our attorneys how to very, very subtly advertise in those types of communications channels.

For our attorney clients who market to businesses, or whose key referral sources are other attorneys or professionals, LinkedIn is a fantastic tool. I could go on and on about the different ways we help attorneys efficiently use LinkedIn to generate more and better referrals, and to identify good clients—and whom they should contact for referrals to those clients. Other social media channels and online platforms can be used strategically to increase business as well. The key here is selective, strategic use.

Learn more about PMAS' Small Firm Lunch and Learn Series.