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Can You Ask Clients for Business?

Can -- and should -- lawyers ask prospective clients for business? That's the question Roy Ginsburg tackles today over at The Lawyerist.

Ginsburg begins by noting that most states' ethics rules prohibit direct solicitation of business from prospective clients. That's why lawyers can't, for instance, go door to door in an elderly community asking residents if they'd like a will prepared.

But while most lawyers are familiar with the ban on direct solicitation, many assume that the rule doesn't apply where business is sought from a "sophisticated" client, such as a company CEO. Ginsburg doesn't agree, pointing out that ethics rules generally "do not contain any such qualifying language." Still, even if ethics were not a bar to seeking work from corporate clients (and I don't believe that they are), Ginsburg says there are other reasons lawyers shouldn't ask for business. He writes:

When I was an in-house lawyer (about a dozen years), I was constantly solicited and hated when “asked for the business.”

First, it insulted my intelligence. When networking and trying to develop relationships with potential clients, one should confidently and enthusiastically tell the person what they do, they love what they do and get great results when they do it. Period. Whenever I heard that, I could certainly connect the dots that this person wanted my business in whatever area talked about; I didn’t have to be hit on the head.

But more importantly, I hated it because it placed me in the uncomfortable position of having to say no. I liked most of the people who were trying to get my business and never appreciated having to be the bad guy telling them that the timing was not right or whatever reason I came up with.

On the other hand, Dan Hull, of What About Clients?, has no compunction about asking clients how he can earn their business. And when Hull asks for business, he claims the response of prospective clients is generally the same:

The client rep laughs and says something like, "That's refreshing -- because I can't tell you how many times I have dined, gone to sporting events or played golf with lawyers and they never ask me for my business. Sometimes this goes on for years. I know that's why they are there -- but they won't ever get to the point."

"So what's up with that?" he or she continues, often openly amused. "Are most lawyers shy or something? Why would I want to hire a law firm not aggressive enough, direct enough or business-oriented enough to just ask for the work?"

I side with Hull's approach over Ginsburg. First, Hull's open ended way of asking business -- by seeking input on how he can help them -- allows him to steer clear of ethics violations because he's not selling a specific, he's asking how he can be most useful were he to represent the company. Second, Hull's approach is proactive -- and I would think that most clients would prefer lawyers with initiative. Finally, though asking for business seems scary because of the possibility of rejection, the alternative is worse. After all, in these economic times, what could be scarier than leaving your future in someone else's hands?

Which approach do you prefer?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on May 19, 2009 at 02:17 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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