Smart people do their homework, rely on past experience and pattern recognition to guide future behavior, and practice. But really smart people often “wing it,” preferring to use their towering intellect to smoothly navigate thorny situations that would frighten lesser mortals. And so it is with many law firm partners who face the same client questions and objections again and again, and who fail to think through, memorize, and practice their responses.

A cultural touchstone in the U.S. and numerous countries around the world is the game show Wheel of Fortune, in which contestants compete for the opportunity to solve a word puzzle one letter at a time. In the final round, the contestant may select several consonants and a vowel, and then the clock starts. Contestants correctly guessing the word puzzle before the clock stops win the grand prize. The odds of winning are largely influenced by the letters a contestant selects. Over time contestants learned the most common English letters are R, S, T, L, N, and E, so these became the default guesses by every contestant in every episode. Eventually the producers conceded these default letters, so now the final puzzle starts by plugging in these letters and then allowing the contestant to select an additional three consonants and one vowel. The lesson to be learned is that we can increase our odds of winning in any business setting by seeing patterns and understanding the key differentiators. In your world, what is your RSTLNE?

I’ve managed quite a few sales teams, and one exercise we’ve always completed for every product or service, at least once a year, is to review our most common client objections. “Your product costs too much” or “You lack feature X but your competitors have it” or “Your organization is too small and we’re afraid our needs will tax your support infrastructure” or “We can’t secure buy-in from senior management to proceed” and many more. We’ve all heard the same challenges and one of us, or collectively all of us, can articulate a reasonable response to address each concern. To be clear, the goal isn’t to develop some smarmy verbiage to hide our shortcomings or mask our price point. Our goal is to focus on the value we deliver, how prior clients have derived quantifiable benefits from our offerings, and offer suggestions for how similarly situated clients have overcome these same obstacles. Nothing demonstrates experience like acting as if you’ve been there before. Pithy responses to real concerns won’t cut it. So we work on this, we write simple, accurate, effective responses, and we practice, even role-playe, our interactions with clients.

And then there are really smart law firms partners who engage with clients and potential clients as if it’s the first time they’ve faced client concerns:

Corporate procurement officer (interviewing law firm partner, who hopes to win the designation as a “preferred lawyer” for the company’s legal needs): “What makes you different than the other lawyers we’re evaluating?”

Lawyer: “Well, I have a great deal of experience in this industry segment, we hire only the finest lawyers, and we put our clients’ needs first.”

Procurement: “Okay, but everyone else we’ve interviewed says the same thing. What makes you different?”

Lawyer: “Um, we’ve worked extensively with companies like yours and we really care deeply about our clients.”

Procurement: “Thank you, but you’ve really just repeated your earlier remarks.”

Lawyer: “Did I mention that we can offer preferred rates?”

Procurement: “We expect preferred rates from all of our providers. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

What’s your RSTLNE? In your practice, your business, your domain, what challenges do you face every day? Have you written them down? Do you have a scripted response? If I were to ask each partner in your practice group how to respond to a handful of simple questions about price, quality, communication, service delivery, responsiveness, change management, project management, or billing, would I receive the same response? If not (I’m being gentle, the answer is of course not), I recommend you schedule time to gather the partners in a room with a whiteboard or a flip chart and work on this together. It’s a simple process.

  1. Ask everyone to list the objections or concerns they routinely hear from clients or prospective clients.
  2. After capturing a couple dozen responses, have everyone tick off their top five selections. Add up the votes and focus on the top five, or at most the top ten.
  3. For each objection, identify the root concern. For example, “Your rates are too high” could have a number of meanings, e.g., comparable firms offer substantially lower rates for the same services; this is important to us but we have no remaining budget this year; this is not a high priority or we’d find the funds; you haven’t proven that you’re experienced enough to warrant high rates, and many more. Many objections are smokescreens. What is the real underlying concern?
  4. Begin listing elements of your response. Focus on benefits, not features. “We’re global” isn’t a benefit, it’s a feature. A benefit answers the client’s question, “So what?” A potential client with a global footprint with similar needs across borders and time zones might find a global law firm offering consistent services and rates to be a cost-effective alternative to hiring numerous local counsel to reinvent the wheel, so position it that way.
  5. Avoid statements you can’t prove or that everyone else can state just as easily. “We care about our clients” is nonsense. So does everyone. “We care about our client’s legal spending, so we’ve adopted a rigorous approach to matter budgeting with a 5-step process to communicate in the event the scope of the matter materially changes our cost or time estimates” conveys the same sentiment with detail. Capture a handful of statements to address each of the objections or concerns.
  6. Delegate the work of writing up a concise narrative for each. Spread the work around. Ten objections can be handled by ten different people, or teams. Ask a valued member of Marketing to be the editor. Every first draft will be too long, too lawyerly, and simultaneously too detailed and too vague. Count on it. Get over it. You write well in legal documents. You’re not a good writer for crisp, effective, responses to common objections. This takes practice. Trust that none of the partners is a good proxy for a client’s perspective, so whether an individual partners despises the draft or loves it is meaningless. An objective observer, potentially even a valued client, or a friend who’s not a client, or of course your credentialed Marketing professionals, have a better ear for this than the partners do. Trust me on this.
  7. Reconvene and practice. Set up simple role plays where one partner plays the client and raises the objection and the other partner shares the prepared response. Even better, video record these role plays and review them for brevity, sincerity, and body language. Implement some gamification, set up a Shark Tank panel and vote on who does it best, who’s prepared, who’s polished, who’s sincere, and give prizes for achievement. Then schedule extra help for those who don’t get it right away. Most won’t. It’s like taking a dance class, it feels like you have three left feet until you get the hang of it.

This checklist is a simple process. Yet, sadly, too many practice group chairs will discard the exercise as unnecessary, or too time-consuming, or possibly even insincere. The grand prize in the game show of business development typically goes to those who work the system rather than try to beat the system. Partners are busy people, to be sure, but when there is limited time, budget, and resources to generate new clients and new revenue streams, it’s worth putting in the extra effort. Smart people do it. Super smart people tend not to. Which calls into question whether we’ve been too generous with that label.


Timothy B. Corcoran is the immediate past President of the Legal Marketing Association and an elected Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. He delivers keynote presentations, conducts workshops, and advises leaders of law firms, in-house legal departments, and legal service providers on how to profit in a time of great change.  To inquire about his services, contact him at +1.609.557.7311 or at tim@corcoranconsultinggroup.com.

Print Friendly

Collect Your Fees or Collect Your Belongings

June 24, 2015

The ongoing Dewey & LeBoeuf trial provides endless fodder for observing dysfunctional organizational behavior. Today’s commentary (h/t AtL) was prompted by the quotes attributed to former Dewey (and now DLA) partner John Altorelli in response to nagging from a collections clerk. Altorelli had apparently missed his monthly collections target of $1.6 million and didn’t appreciate being […]

Print Friendly
Read the full article →

Using Client Engagement Letters to Better Define Services

June 9, 2015

I was recently interviewed for the Association of Legal Administration‘s Legal Management magazine on the topic of client engagement letters. Writer Paula Tsurutani gathered commentary from a number of industry leaders and presented a thoughtful article outlining the vast, and largely untapped, benefits of a well-designed and well-written client engagement letter. Here is the feedback […]

Print Friendly
Read the full article →

2015 InnovAction Awards Call for Entries

June 5, 2015

I am pleased to announce that we are now accepting applications for the 11th Annual InnovAction Awards!  Each year, the College of Law Practice Management conducts a world-wide search for lawyers, law firms, law departments and others in the legal services field that have invented or successfully applied new business practices to the delivery of […]

Print Friendly
Read the full article →

Do Less Law – Redefining Value in the Delivery of Legal Services

June 2, 2015

I have the good fortune to be invited to attend the upcoming ILTA annual conference to join my friend Ron Friedmann in conducting an interactive workshop entitled “Do Less Law.” This session builds on a growing concept that the maturation of law practice is as much about doing less as it is about doing more with less, a […]

Print Friendly
Read the full article →

Avoiding Laziness in Setting Goals

May 27, 2015

It seems axiomatic: if you don’t know where you’re going, how do you know when you’ve arrived? Yet many law firms fail to define the most fundamental of goals, leaving them prone to variable interpretation, or misinterpretation, on the nature of their fiscal health. Often the failure to define goals or track performance within a law […]

Print Friendly
Read the full article →

Compensation, Billable Hours Limiting Law Firms’ Success

May 5, 2015

Legal Intelligencer reporters Gina Passarella and Hank Grezlak have authored a series of articles on the changing law firm business model and how law firms must adapt to compete. The first article in the series, “Law Firm 3.0: Information Changing Law Firm Models“, can be found here. The second, “Compensation, Billable Hours Limiting Firms’ Success,” […]

Print Friendly
Read the full article →

Legal Marketing Association Celebrates 30 Years

April 21, 2015

I am proud to have been a member for 20 of the Legal Marketing Association‘s 30 years, and I’m especially proud to have served its 3,800 members as the 2014 President. As my time in the spotlight concludes, I am delighted to leave the organization in the capable hands of the many smart, passionate, dedicated […]

Print Friendly
Read the full article →

Infighting on Compensation Costs Law Firms Time and Money

February 16, 2015

Lately I’ve been spending a substantial amount of time working with law firm leaders on evaluating and redesigning — yes, substantially rewriting — partner compensation plans. As with many other categories of the law firm business, for far too long law firms have operated as if practicing law relies on, and generates, human behavior that […]

Print Friendly
Read the full article →

7 Reasons Why Your Law Firm Has Not Yet Found the Right CMO

February 11, 2015

A number of law firm leaders have expressed concerns to me regarding what they perceive to be a lack of quality and qualified candidates for the most senior law firm marketing positions, such as chief marketing officer or chief business development officer. It’s certainly plausible that some candidates who rose to senior-level law firm positions […]

Print Friendly
Read the full article →