(Photo by Maggie Soladay)

Marketing ideas have their moments. About a dozen years ago, law firms discovered that by trolling electronic databases they could quickly learn when a client—or a potential client—had been sued. From there it was a short leap to firing off a note advising of the filing.

For a brief time that proved to be a novel and therefore dandy sales tactic. But soon enough, every marketing manager with a PACER account and a smartphone got into the act, and general counsel were inundated with bad—and worse, old—news about their litigation dockets. Though most clients have long since stopped biting on this bait, firms continue, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a somewhat different context, to beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The core idea was a good one: tell clients something they didn’t know. But now the best thing you can do with a new filing alert is not to send one.

Now comes the advent of a new meme. Bill Flannery, the sales trainer for law firms, refers to it as meeting “latent needs.” Trevor Faure, E&Y’s global leader for legal services, calls this “professional prescience,” telling a client what’s going to happen next. And in a new book called “Selling Professional and Financial Services Handbook,” Scott Paczosa and Chuck Peruchini, sales and strategy officers at Navigant, the Chicago-based consulting firm, have dubbed it the “rock-ripple effect.”

For Paczosa and Peruchini, that means finding the “rock”—a little-noticed event, trend, statute or enforcement policy—and then searching for “ripples” that are spreading into the lives of potential clients. In their view, clients are too busy for old-school wooing and too staff-constrained to spot all the dangers that lurk ahead. Instead they propose a selling-by-educating approach, one “that can get people’s attention even when their minds and plates are full, by giving them information worth listening to.”

Of course, the world is full of rocks, and finding a meaningful ripple is easier advised than accomplished. Paczosa offers the example of the rising cost of health care. Paczosa noticed an uptick in federal fraud and abuse inquiries into Medicaid payments. Then he found a chip off the rock—the feds had started to target “cardiac-assist” implants. His team gathered more data about these probes and activity from whistleblowers and plaintiffs firms, then brought their news to hospitals and defense firms. The point, he says, was to show that “we understood their market. We saw an impact coming at their business. And we had some ideas for strategies.”

This work calls for team efforts: lawyers, business development staff and industry specialists who can identify issues, gather data, develop potential solutions and draw up lists of clients worth approaching. And it requires patience, as the pay-off comes only after a firm establishes itself as a thoughtful and reliable source of information and insight.

It’s also hardly new. Law firms with institutional relationships have maintained them in part by helping their clients spot crises before they develop.

Entrepreneurial partners have long understood that. Wendy Bernero, the chief strategy officer at Proskauer, likes to tell the story of Frank Lopez, a partner who helped build his practice by developing innovative high-yield debt instruments. He took his idea to boutique banks and found takers. Today, Lopez co-heads Proskauer’s Global Capital Markets group and still leverages data. Now he oversees an annual high-yield debt study that updates his bulge bracket and boutique bank clients on hundreds of deals. Says Bernero, “Frank shows how lawyers become trusted advisers. He didn’t wait for someone to hand over some legal work. He addressed matters clients hadn’t thought of yet. And he still does.”

This is work for lawyers with smarts and judgment. Sometimes they’ll be wrong. But better to spot the wrong ripple than sit around like a rock, one that feels no pain and doesn’t have any clients.

Press, ALM’s editor in chief, can be reached at apress@alm.com.