How to choose the ‘right’ legal clients – and learn from the wrong ones

Published 30/01/2022

Published 30/01/2022

When you first establish a law firm and are trying to drum up business, you might take on any client who wants to enlist you. Because any revenue is good revenue – right?

Not necessarily. In this article, Tim Corcoran (Principal, Corcoran Consulting Group) and Vivienne Corcoran (Director, Marketing Logic) explain why saying no to certain clients might be the smartest financial decision you can make.

Referrals and the client lifecycle

Referrals are key to any firm’s long-term success. And according to Vivienne Corcoran, they should eventually make up a substantial part of your revenue stream.  “Ideally, the majority of your work should be coming from people you’ve worked with before,” she says. “Either from repeat clients, or in the form of referrals.”

Past clients are likely to refer you to new clients if you meet, or exceed, their expectations.

You might think of this as the client lifecycle. Quality service begets quality referrals. That’s why striving to deliver genuine value is of the utmost importance.

Hard work and a refusal to shy away from challenges will take you a long way. But there is a way to maximise your chance of a past client being so impressed that they refer you to others: choose the right clients from the start.

Aren’t any clients the right clients?

You won’t be the right fit for every client. And that’s not a reflection of your abilities or level of experience; it’s just that your strengths are inevitably better suited to some jobs more than others.

Despite this, Tim Corcoran says that “… many lawyers still take on any clients they can under the misguided notion that any revenue is good revenue.” But even though each of those clients is another source of revenue, Tim cautions that this approach isn’t always profitable in the long run.

“Accepting work that your team is not capable of doing will naturally result in the work taking too long to complete,” he says. In turn, this will heighten the risk of client dissatisfaction – and diminish the chances of them referring you on to others.

And if you have a large team, the tendency to take on a wide variety of clients can make everyone less effective – and more time poor.

“If you’re in a larger firm, you might say ‘We can do everything for everyone!’ but that just dilutes your time and resources,” Tim continues.

“So learning how to say no comes from finding out what you absolutely want to say yes to, because you’re good at it.”

Finding the right fit

Accepting clients who you know will play to your team’s strengths gives you a strong advantage. And by delighting client after client with stellar service, you build a solid reputation and become a referral-generating machine.

On the flip side, saying no to certain clients is a powerful decision because it allows you to focus your precious time and energy on the type of work you’re best at – and the clients you know you can impress.

As Vivienne says, “You can’t work for clients you want to work for if you’re too busy working for clients who aren’t a match.”

But to truly understand the type of clients you want, you need to get clear on the type of service you want to offer – and where your natural strengths and weaknesses lie.

Defining your service will put you in much better stead to discern whether a prospective client will fit that service or not. Of course, understanding your clients is a skill unto itself.

That, according to Vivienne, “is about looking closely at what the client wants, who they are and what they’re looking for.

“Rather than just saying, ‘I’ve got this service; I can do conveyancing, or contracts, or wills and estates’, consider what the client is looking for. What are they trying to achieve?”

Depending on the answer to that question, they might not be for you. But if you say no, that doesn’t mean your relationship needs to end there.

Paying it forward

Being honest about the fact that you aren’t the person or team to help them is a sure-fire way to earn people’s trust.

And if you pay it forward by sending them to someone who can help them, you’re still building a great reputation.

“One of the most powerful things you can say is, ‘No, I’m not good at that,’” says Tim. “I’ve had business conversations with people before and realised that they weren’t for me, but I’ve given them the names of three people who would be right for them.

“I’ve had those people call me back years later with work that does fit my services. And they tell me, ‘I remembered you because you knew you wouldn’t do the best job, but took the time to tell us who would.’”

When saying no isn’t an option

Of course, not everyone is in a position to turn down revenue while they hold out for a golden client. Especially in the beginning, you still need to make ends meet.

“It’s a challenge for small law firms and solos, in particular – you take on whatever work you can until you build enough volume to specialise or do the work you want,” says Tim.

For those who don’t yet have the luxury of saying no to the ‘wrong’ clients, both Vivienne and Tim recommend seeing every job as an opportunity to refine your services and ambitions.

“If you have to take on work that might not be exactly right for you, take it on – but consider what you’ll learn through the process,” Vivienne suggests.
“You might ask yourself, ‘Is this something I’m really good at? Can I deliver value here?’ Or even, ‘Is there some other work this client might have that I’d be better suited to?’”

“Maybe you’ll learn that this isn’t the work you want to do, and you want to do something else. The key is to get to a point faster where you’re being referred the work that you really want to do… and getting better and better at it.”

You should aim to, one day, get to a point where you can specialise and target a client base – even if you aren’t quite there yet.

Like everything, it’s a process

Learning which clients to say yes to and which to say no is a deliberate process that takes time and focus. But it’s worth your while.
Building a targeted client base, and generating referrals to the right kind of clients, keeps you doing the work you want to do while developing your expertise and proficiency.

And crucially, it generates a consistent stream of revenue that will only pick up speed – even if that means passing a few potential clients along to someone else.

Want to take a deep dive into the client buying process?

The College of Law’s course How and why clients buy legal services is now taking enrolments.

Learn directly from Tim Corcoran and Vivienne Corcoran, your Teaching Fellows, and develop and get expert advice on a Practice Development Plan within the course that can help build your business. Download the course brochure



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