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Boosting business with focused approach

Lawyers balance needs of clients with need to attract new clients
By Saul Chernos
February 10 2017 issue

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As an associate with a medium-size firm Tanya Carlton was able to devote her full attention to serving its strong client base. But when she went solo in the Ottawa suburb of Barrhaven in early 2016 she found herself on the marketing hot seat, casting her net for referrals.

It’s no different from any other business. Whether starting from scratch or maintaining a thriving firm, success depends on attracting and retaining a steady flow of customers. Lawyers are finding their time increasingly torn between meeting client needs in the here-and-now and actively prospecting to maintain an ongoing caseload.

“It’s been stressful,” Carlton says, acknowledging the challenges that come with leaving a relatively secure milieu where clients seem to be in almost eternal abundance. While an associate, Carlton focused on legal issues facing charities and not-for-profit organizations. But as a solo practitioner, she switched to real estate and wills and found herself rebuilding from scratch.

“When I started I would go out, try to meet real estate agents and just put my name out there,” Carlton says. “But it’s difficult. Real estate agents already have lawyers they work with, so you’re trying to get in with a crowd that doesn’t necessarily want to bring you in.”

Carlton responded with a multi-pronged approach. She joined LinkedIn, a social media networking platform for professionals and took out a modest amount of locally directed online advertising mentioning her name, location and area of practice.

The advertising attracted a few inquiries but took considerable time and required further effort to convert inquiries into clients. More immediately rewarding was a small local business networking group where members refer potential business prospects to each other. “If I treat those referrals well then I’ll get more referrals,” Carlton says. “It’s all word-of-mouth, and it goes from there.”

Carlton notched her biggest success, though, by signing up with a federal government relocation program. “They pay less but you have clients,” says Carlton, whose work caught the attention of her clients’ realtors. “By actually working with clients, and the clients and their real estate agents being happy with my work, the agents started referring me to their other clients (outside the program).”

Rana Bokhari had an entirely different ace up her sleeve when she helped launch the boutique-size office of Bokhari, Smith & Walker in Winnipeg in September. She had just left politics after three years as leader of the Manitoba Liberal Party.

“It’s a very unique situation,” Bokhari concedes. “If there’s anything you pick up during that game it’s relationship building. Now I’m building relationships with my clients.”

Bokhari had put her general commercial practice on hold while in politics. Upon her return to law, she refined her focus to serve a carefully defined niche — doctors and dentists — and e-mailed everyone she knew to invite them to an open-house launch event.

Most recipients weren’t doctors or dentists, but Bokhari relied on a sufficient number of people knowing her well enough to feel comfortable passing her name along.

Bokhari says her narrow scope of practice has helped because doctors and dentists have their own communities. “It’s like it is with lawyers — we’re all friends with each other. You can drum up a lot of business by having a niche practice.”

While Bokhari has handled her own marketing, her business plan calls for a part-time IT professional to help administer online promotional undertakings such as advertising, social media engagement and search engine optimization to draw traffic to her website.

“Wearing two hats at the same time takes a lot of co-ordination,” Bokhari explains. “You have to be able to delegate.”

Sylvia Garibaldi, a business coach and principal of SG and Associates in Toronto, says lawyers and other service professionals need to decide how much time to spend servicing existing clients versus prospecting for new ones.

“It’s making a very conscious decision, committing to your goals and determining how you’re going to do all that,” Garibaldi says.

With time generally in short supply, Garibaldi recommends looking for efficiencies. This can include delegating tasks to administrative staff or outside service providers, but most importantly it means marketing with thought and precision.

“Define your ideal target audience — the clients you want to attract,” Garibaldi says. “Then find ways to reach that audience. It’s networking in the right places, asking for referrals and connecting to centres of influence that are connected to your ideal target audience.”

When invited to speak at an association conference or meet key industry players, it’s vital to collect contact information and follow up immediately with a view to speaking further or even meeting for coffee.

As opportunities for one-on-one conversation arise, whether with potential prospects or even existing clients, Garibaldi recommends asking powerful questions and listening carefully.

“Discover their pain points, perhaps things they struggle with as a business owner,” Garibaldi says. “The individual will then feel appreciated and want to share information with you, and eventually the conversation will turn around to what you do.”

Jane Southren, a commercial litigator for 15 years before she turned her attention full time to consulting, says business development tactics vary and an ideal strategy not only incorporates multiple approaches but ensures each tactic addresses a full range of key objectives.

Objectives Southren sees as key are maintaining a high standard of excellence, building positive work relationships, building your professional profile and supporting the overall wellbeing of your firm.

“Where a lot of people really lose on efficiency is if they just hit one objective,” Southren says. “They will attend command-performance events when they feel that it looks good on their firm to have a table populated at the event, or they will write or speak and assume that because their name is on it that it’s contributed towards their profile.”

Instead, Southren advocates a shift in business development attitude to one where lawyers get involved in legal or other business organizations with a view to contributing.

“Let what you get out of it or what comes back to you worry about itself,” Southren says. “Start creating a network of people who are aligned to you. Once you’re in that community and are contributing to it positively the relationships will start to develop, and as the relationships develop you will start to see how you can help each other.”

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