Phil Karter's article “How to Make It Rain: Feeding and Nurturing the Client Relationship”
Reprinted with permission from the August 23, 2022, edition of The Legal Intelligencer © 2022 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-257-3382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to Make It Rain: Feeding and Nurturing the Client Relationship
By Phil Karter
Advice for the New Partner
Although most everyone likes a sunny forecast, in the legal profession it is those who make it rain that are often the most valued and well-compensated. But while farmers need rain to feed and nurture their crops, for lawyers, the inverse proposition is more likely true because it is the feeding and nurturing of client relationships, especially when they are in the nascent stage, that help produce the rain. For those “younger farmers” hoping to turn a trickle into a good soaking rainstorm, here are a few modest suggestions to get you started.
Decide what crops to grow: Define your message and zero in on prospects whose interests match your expertise. Cultivate relationships with other seedlings and grow those relationships and as you each rise in your respective organizations. Always be focused on how you might help them rather than the other way around, even if it nothing more than providing a good recommendation of another professional. No one will ever begrudge selflessness.
Feed the crops: Cultivating relationships by either developing new ones or cementing existing ones is certain to involve an investment in uncompensated time. Do not let those billable hour requirements distract you from that effort. The uncompensated time you are spending is an investment in yourself. For example, keeping a contact informed of relevant legal developments that might bear on a percolating issue on the client’s horizon – perhaps one they don’t even appreciate - is a great way to maintain regular communication and let them know you are always thinking about ways you can help them and their businesses, even if indirectly. For me, what turned into the most long-standing and profitable client relationship of my career was preceded by a two-year investment of time keeping what was then a future client informed on a regular basis about developments on an issue they were likely to confront in court down the road. And it doesn’t matter that you will never bat 1.000. Remember that even a .300 hitter can make the Hall of Fame.
Give thanks even when it’s not Thanksgiving: When you have reached the point of seeing the fruits of your labors reflected in the harvesting of some healthy client relationships, you will invariably reach a point in your careers that many lawyers think of as a chore (akin to keeping track of their professional lives in six-minute increments), which is sending out bills to your own clients. But here’s another perspective; think less of this as a chore, and more as an opportunity to further enhance the relationship. Although it is likely true that most clients don’t relish receiving attorneys’ bills, the messages that accompany those bills can accomplish so much more than simply creating receivables. Every bill I send out – yes, that task is not delegated to a support staff person no matter how small the client or the matter – is an opportunity to explain what we’ve done the past month and why, what achievements we’ve had or what obstacles we still face, and what we forecast is coming down the pike in the months to follow. Most importantly, it is an opportunity to demonstrate how much you value the relationship and how appreciative you are that they have entrusted you to assist them in accomplishing their objectives. (I cannot overstate how many times, especially with new clients unfamiliar with this practice, that I have received a response expressing thanks for the informative communication.) You may not think this is worth the time investment, especially for smaller clients and matters. But word of mouth can be a powerful crop fertilizer so one is well-served to institutionalize the practice of letting all clients know that you are personally invested in their success. At some point, they will be invested in yours.
Treat your neighbor’s farm like your own: Your colleagues may turn out to be a great source of rainclouds that help you make rain, but this is not a given. Developing your value to your neighbor’s farm requires the same care and nurturing efforts you should apply to your own. Be tireless in your commitment to help them grow and service their practices. If your skillsets complement their own, demonstrate to them that by servicing the client with excellent work product, you can expand the high-quality services they can promote to that client, while at the same time, cementing your own value to colleagues and clients alike.
Hopefully, the sprinkling of a little starter fertilizer here can help your pathway toward some sustainable farming.
Phil Karter is managing shareholder of the Philadelphia Office of Chamberlain, Hrdlicka, White, Williams & Aughtry specializing in tax controversy and litigation. He a former trial attorney with the Department of Justice Tax Division. He may be reached at email@example.com.