Editor’s note: This article is the first part of a series on getting business in a difficult legal market.

How can a law firm find new clients in a business climate where demand for legal services has dwindled and corporate counsel tend to favor sticking with the outside firms they already use? The answer is probably familiar to anyone who’s ever braved their first day at a new school: Get out there and make friends.

But that’s only the beginning, because once a firm has a potential client’s ear, it must be up to the challenge of persuading in-house counsel to take a bit of a risk, attorneys said.

“There’s the old adage that it’s expensive to change accounting firms and there’s some truth with respect to law firms as well,” said Barry F. Levin, managing partner of Philadelphia-based Saul Ewing, of corporate counsel’s aversion to the less familiar.

Levin added, however, that, even with the recent decrease in legal demand, there are more opportunities than ever before for firms that do great work for competitive rates.

Law firm consultant Jeff Coburn agreed, saying that, as in-house legal department budgets continue to dwindle, corporate counsel are finding themselves increasingly in need of outside firms that can provide value and more willing to look beyond their stable of familiar standbys to find them.

The problem is in-house legal departments are often too busy to really research which firms they’re not already using in a particular practice area or geographic region would be best suited to their needs, according to Coburn.

“They don’t know who to use,” Coburn said. “They don’t have any type of list. I know because they admit it.”

Similarly, companies don’t always even realize they could be getting better value from their outside counsel, according to Coburn.

That’s where the responsibility falls to firms to get on the radars of potential clients and find ways to prove their mettle, or at least make a case for why they deserve a shot, Coburn said.

But being seen by prospective clients involves some groundwork.

“There are a few different ways to get in the door without doing any kind of cold-calling, which never works,” said David M. Kleppinger, chairman of McNees Wallace & Nurick in Harrisburg.

As with many types of relationships, sometimes the best way to meet someone is through a mutual friend, lawyers said.

“Client referrals are the best referrals you can hope for,” Kleppinger said. “If one GC says to another, ‘I just had the experience of a lifetime with McNees on this case that was very complex and they did a very good job,’ that recommendation goes a long way.”

Coburn said firms should not be afraid to ask their clients to put in a good word for them with other companies.

According to Levin, that strategy has worked for his firm.

“We’re not shy about asking clients we really treasure to make introductions,” Levin said.

While matchmaking and word-of-mouth are both highly effective, they’re not the only ways firms can be seen by prospective clients without having to resort to solicitation, attorneys said.

According to Kleppinger, lawyers at his firm make significant efforts to establish relationships with potential clients by serving on local boards and councils.

The goal, according to Kleppinger, is to ensure that McNees Wallace is top of mind when one of those potential clients needs new outside counsel.

Traditionally, that need has arisen due to an outside firm’s conflict or the retirement of a relationship partner at the firm, Kleppinger said.

But, like Coburn, Kleppinger added that more and more clients in this post-recession legal landscape are finding themselves in the market for firms that accommodate their shrinking budgets.

So, Kleppinger explained, even if a company is completely satisfied with the quality of service it’s receiving from its outside counsel, there may come a time when that outside firm begins to price itself out of the work, creating opportunities for other firms in the market.

When in-house counsel experiences a budget cut, “the first thing they will do is talk to their existing counsel and say, ‘Can we engage in some type of alternate fee arrangement that can get us there?’” Kleppinger said. “Sometimes that can be done and sometimes it can’t.”

If it can’t, according to Kleppinger, companies will often issue requests for proposals, and that’s where all that time spent building relationships with potential clients can pay off for a firm that’s able to offer the same value at a lower cost.

“You want to have a relationship before you respond to an RFP so it’s not cold,” Kleppinger said.

Levin said his firm also strives to get itself in front of potential clients through what he called “adding value even in those nonbillable situations.”

“We are very involved in a lot of industry and trade organizations and have been very focused on developing very experienced lawyers in the industries we’re known for,” Levin said. “We showcase those lawyers through industry and trade organizations, e-alerts, books, newsletters and speaking engagements.”

This approach, Levin said, not only puts Saul Ewing’s name in the minds of potential clients, but also builds up the firm’s reputation for knowledge and expertise in certain practice areas and industries.

According to Levin, more than ever, companies want to see what a firm has to offer, rather than simply hear a sales pitch.

“It used to be, you’d go in and talk about your great experience, throw a couple of war stories at people and give out glossy handouts,” Levin said. “That doesn’t really work anymore. Clients are looking for a firm that shows an understanding of their industry and tries to provide added value.”

Levin said his firm will often walk through with potential clients exactly what a real matter would look like from start to finish if handled by Saul Ewing.

According to Levin, that demonstration includes how the firm would approach the matter, how it would react to certain issues, what the rate structure would look like and whether it would match the company’s budget.

Prospective clients appreciate that “you’re giving them guidance and input right out of the gate and you don’t even know whether you’re going to be engaged or not,” Levin said.

Hearkening back to Kleppinger’s point about being poised to take advantage when an opportunity arises, Coburn said one of the most effective ways for a firm to show off its capabilities is to offer to handle a small, low-stakes matter that a potential client’s current outside counsel may be conflicted out of doing.

Coburn said all in-house counsel want to have a roster of firms they can turn to when a conflict arises.

“You go and say, ‘If you need an outside firm because you’ve got a conflict and you need to do something that’s pretty simple, give us a shot and we’ll give you a test drive. We’d love to have a chance to show you how we think we can handle your work more economically than it’s probably already being handled,’” Coburn said. “It’s a matter of prying work out of these hundreds and hundreds of things these companies have going on.”

Zack Needles can be contacted at 215-557-2493 or zneedles@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZNeedlesTLI. •