IDEAS ABOUT “CLOSING THE DEAL” IN A PLAINTIFF’S TRIAL PRACTICE

When I started my plaintiff’s trial practice it soon became apparent to me that, like or not,  I was involved in sales – professional sales – but nevertheless sales.  I was selling myself to prospective clients, selling an idea or legal position to judges and selling my client’s case to juries. The first place I was professionally selling was to clients because it became apparent to me that I needed to have clients agree to hire me in order to have a legal practice. I wasn’t in a firm where someone else was responsible for finding clients and in signing clients up. It was up to me to find the clients and then convince them to hire me. That was the reality. The subject of finding clients, or marketing, is not what I am qualified to talk about. What I want to talk about is called in sales “closing the deal.” The question is, after we have met with the client how do we get them to hire us?

I will note about marketing legal services, it has been my experience that the great majority of clients do not find their plaintiff’s lawyer by a study of  who is the most qualified plaintiff’s lawyer to hire. Instead, they are guided to some lawyer by a friend or a family lawyer  or an advertisement or some other referral source. Worse than that, a lawyer who is unqualified to handle a particular plaintiff’s case may decide to keep it anyway with the idea that they can settle it and earn a fee. These are the lawyers who contact the qualified lawyers  shortly before trial only when they found out they can’t settle the case. In addition, there are lawyers who are contacted  about a plaintiff’s case which they are not qualified to handle who search for a lawyer for the client. However, their chief concern is not finding the best qualified plaintiff’s lawyer, it is rather  finding the lawyer  who will pay them the largest referral fee. Legal services marketing is a world unto itself in our profession that I leave for others to solve.

When it comes to signing up new clients, the first and most important rule is that all agreements  regarding client representation must be in writing. There are no exceptions to this rule if you want to avoid controversy and possible malpractice lawsuits. My contracts were clear and limited to one page. They spelled out the basics which included such subjects as how the fee would be charged, responsibility for costs advanced and the details  relating to the professional relationship. My policy was I did no work and I was not hired until the contract had been signed by those who had authority to hire me. So, after meeting with the clients and presenting them with the proposed fee contract the question is how do you get them to sign or “close the deal?” That’s the subject of this post.

Think about this from the standpoint of the client. What is it the client really wants to know? Well, here are the basics: (1) can you as their lawyer do what I need done? (2) how much will it cost me? and (3) how long will it take? The clients evaluation of your responses and their impression of  you will determine whether they hire you or not. The first question is whether you are qualified, experienced and able to represent them right? Why hire you in stead of someone else. What’s my advantage in having you as my lawyer? The second involves a discussion of fees both hourly and on a contingency, plus the amounts. You need to decide what your standard fees are and whether you are willing to negotiate them. My policy was to have a reasonable fee that would not be reduced and that you hire a surgeon who negotiated his or her fee for the surgery. As to the  time, I knew generally time in different counties for trial schedules and would advise about average time for settlements. However, I also emphasized the importance of filing suit and discovery before any negotiation except in unique situations.

Taking lessons from the commercial sales field gives us some insight as to how we should deal with these concerns of the client. For example, we need to create a value for the client in hiring us. We need to show how the client will benefit from our services in the short or long term. Convincing the client that you have the skills and ability to solve their legal problem is an essential step. What are other things we should do in this regard?

Be a good listener. Lawyers like to talk, and talk, but are terrible listeners. Letting the client talk is an essential part of  developing a relationship that leads to your being hired. Ask questions, understand  people’s fears and concerns so that you can explain how you’re going to help them solve these problems.

Keep in mind the question is not what’s best for you as far as the client is concerned. The question in their mind is what’s best for me? What the client wants to know  is whether you can help and how you will resolve their issue. Your whole focus should be in listening and understanding their problems and what is best for them.

Don’t attack your competitors. When clients ask you about your professional competitors they may be considering hiring  instead of you,  make it a practice not to attack other lawyers or firms. When you put down your professional  competitor in the hopes of being hired, you are not only being unprofessional you may give a bad impression of yourself to the client and not be hired as a result. Certainly there are  situations where it is in the client’s best interest  to be advised of a problem or  real lack of qualifications in another  lawyer but those are rare situations.

From the field of sales we know that there are certain helpful factors that go into having the client hire you. These include some fundamental rules:

  1. Communicate clearly. Avoid “lawyer talk” and focus on the basic questions in the mind of the client: Can you do it, what will cost and how long will it take? Clearly explain  the legal situation to the client and the process which will likely follow once you’ve been hired.
  2. Make eye contact. We know that good communication involves eye contact because it is the way in which we know we’re being heard. Lawyers as bad listeners also often fail have good eye contact. It helps project confidence in yourself, your services  and what you can do for the client.  And while you’re at it remember to smile.
  3. Stay confident. There is a clear difference between conceit, arrogance and self confidence. We mustn’t make false promises or give guarantees that aren’t possible but confidence in being able to do what the client needs to have done is an essential part of the decision to hire. Project sincere confidence in yourself and your abilities to the client.
  4. Be as positive as  reasonably justified. We should give honest advice and full information about the problem and our ability to resolve it for the client. Our approach should be a positive one, but truthful. The client is looking for someone to trust. Project that to them.
  5. Remain seated until the deal is closed.  Experienced lawyers know that in order to encourage an end to a client meeting, getting up from your chair and walking towards the door is  a proven tool. By the same token remaining seated, even if your client stands up, encourages further discussion about hiring you. Stay seated,
  6. Be prepared for signing. When you are ready to discuss signing the fee agreement, have a pen ready and put it with the contract in front of the client with a concluding request that they hire you as their lawyer. I always had envelopes for different types of personal injury cases. They had inside the fee agreement, medical waivers and all the documents you need a client to sign. The envelope sat on the desk until needed and was ready whenever it was the right time. In an you

How should we go about  asking the client to sign the contract to hire us? The most basic rule in sales is that in order to close a deal you have to ask for the business. The greatest failure of salespeople generally is their fear or reluctance to ask for the business. Once you’ve shown the client how they will benefit from your services and why you are fully prepared to provide a solution to their problem you need to ask the client to hire you. From the field of sales we have learned what things to say to encourage hiring. Modify them to fit you and your personality. They include these kinds of  statements: (1) “Here is the contract for you to review and approve so that we can move forward with this today.” (2) “what you need to think about right now? What can I clear up for you?” (3) “Would you like my help?” and (5) “Are you ready for us to move forward on this?”

The subject of getting clients to hire you involves an enormous number of factors, but perhaps these very basic ideas about signing the fee agreement will inspire you to give this more thought.

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