You have a great reputation, excellent credentials, went to all the right schools, and have plenty of practical experience. I think you may just be the perfect attorney for me, and you are exactly what I am looking for to help me with this case. But, actually, I just signed a retainer with another firm.


Those of you who have read my articles before have probably assumed that this person made an uninformed decision to hire the "wrong" attorney because he had not spoken to you. Since many of my articles are about business development, you may have also assumed that this article would focus on becoming more visible and more effective as a business developer. Following this line of thinking, you would not have spoken to this person, and so you would assume that you did not miss an opportunity. That would be a great assumption, but, alas, it would be too easy and also quite incorrect.

If you had not spoken to this person and they engaged another firm, then in fact you did lose an opportunity. However, for this example, I am sorry to say that you had in fact already spoken to this prospective client during his evaluation process, and he still signed a retainer with someone else. "But he told me that I was the perfect attorney!" True, he did share this with you, but a potential reason as to why another attorney got the retainer is the crux of this article. Therefore, let us examine this hypothetical depiction of perhaps a very real situation you may have encountered in your practice, and will likely encounter again in the future.

I am going to put this into a Q&A format, recounting the typical dialogue between me and the attorney who didn’t get the retainer.

Bill Taylor: Thinking back to the time you had your first, and perhaps only, meeting with this particular prospect, how did it go?

Attorney: Well, I believe it was a good meeting; he has a situation that I have handled before. In fact, I have a great deal of experience with these types of matters and have had very good outcomes and a high degree of success. The client would have been smart to retain me for this case.

BT: How long was your meeting?

Attorney: My initial consultations are typically an hour.

BT: Did you tell him about all of your experience in these matters?

Attorney: Yes, we discussed my background and experience at length.

BT: Did the prospective client ask you good questions about your background and experience with these matters?

Attorney: Not really, he did not seem very familiar with what questions to ask me.

BT: Then how did you discuss your background and credentials at length?

Attorney: I told him all about our firm and who is on our staff and where they clerked, staff assignments, etc. I talked about our history, and we enjoyed a cup of coffee together.

BT: In speaking with the prospective client about his matter, what nuances were unique to his case, or different from others you have handled previously?

Attorney: Well, for the most part, his case seemed the same as most of the others I have handled. In fact, it was quite typical for these matters.

BT: Has this prospect ever needed representation for this type of matter before?

Attorney: I’m not sure, but he didn’t say so.

BT: Did you ask?

Attorney: Well…. No.

BT: Did you discuss potential outcomes for this case?

Attorney: Briefly, but there wasn’t too much time for details.

BT: Short of the obvious, do you know what this prospect would be willing to settle for?

Attorney: Again, I wasn’t able to get to that level of granularity — after all, it was just the initial consultation.

BT: How about what he is absolutely unwilling to do, no matter what?

Attorney: I’m sorry but I don’t know that either.

While this is a bit of an exaggeration, these are the types of questions I might ask an attorney in this situation after learning he had not gotten an engagement. We often find a common thread in analyzing these situations: the attorney actually asked the prospective client very few questions and spent much of the time "selling" himself and his firm.

In a profession that relies so heavily on truthfulness, and where every law school teaches its students the fundamentals of good questioning skills — why don’t attorneys ask potential prospects more questions? The answer — a misguided focus! The attorney was focused on the wrong area during the call or meeting. He was focused on himself rather than on the client, the problem and how he, the attorney, could successfully impact the outcome!

Whenever discussing a matter with a prospective client for the first time, the focus needs to be on the client. The goal is to find out all the information you can during the meeting. The objective should be to ask as many good questions as possible to identify and frame the matter, learn about the parties involved, their personalities and the politics, to understand the underlying dynamics, and ask what the client is expecting as an ideal outcome. Also, try to determine the impact the case may have for the person in his business or personal life, both present and future. The more you learn about the client during the beginning of the meeting, the easier it will be to recount and demonstrate your experience and competency. As the meeting draws to a conclusion, you will have the opportunity to summarize key points and connect your prior successes with the client’s current situation. Also, remember to discuss a "next step" as to how you will proceed.

Clients often need an opportunity to be truly heard by someone willing to listen to their story — someone who will represent them. Listening to your prospects and giving them the opportunity to speak shows that you care as much about them as you do about the situation they are facing.

Following this approach provides two key benefits:

First: It puts the focus where it belongs — on the prospect! Asking good questions helps the attorney to not only get the facts about the situation the prospect is facing but also to learn more about the client’s personality and how he might react when working together during the process. Knowing that there is room for negotiation may allow greater latitude for success, while a recalcitrant stance may require additional time to be invested and could perhaps force an undesired outcome.

Second: No selling required! Most attorneys I ask say they hate to "sell." This approach dramatically reduces the amount of "sales time" required. The beauty lies in the simplicity of the system. By asking good questions of the client, you have the opportunity to demonstrate your competence in the subject area by using anecdotal evidence. The more questions asked, and the better the questions asked, the better the information received will be, and the better positioned you will be to win the engagement. And it won’t feel like selling.

Try asking more and telling less. Asking great questions is the route to more engagements and one of the best ways to grow your practice revenues.•