Best Ways to Expand Key Client Relationships from the Lawyers' and Firms' Perspectives

This article appeared in Marketing the Law Firm, an ALM/Law Journal Newsletters publication reporting on the latest, and most effective, strategies for Chief Marketing Officers, Managing Partners, Law Firm Marketing Directors, Administrators and Consultants.


It is well-established that it takes much more time, money and effort to get a brand-new client in the door than it does to get more work from an existing client, where a relationship of trust is already established. See, “Don't Spend 5 Times More Attracting New Customers, Nurture the Existing Ones,” Yet, for a variety of reasons, many law firms and lawyers struggle to effectively cross-sell or cross-service (defined as expanding the type or amount of work done for any individual client). See, ““Cross-Selling Sucks.” Here Are 18 Reasons Why. (Part 2),” Fishman Marketing. In fact, Michael Rynowecer says “BTI research reveals the typical law firm has only 23% of a client’s work available to them” and “clients often wonder why law firms and lawyers don’t spend more time and effort trying to get more of their business.”

This article defines the specific and best actions lawyers and law firms can take to expand client relationships. It will be published in two parts. This first part includes specific actions individual lawyers can take to expand client relationships. The second part will be in MLF’s May issue and will cover what law firms as institutions can do to help the firm’s departments, practice groups, teams and lawyers expand client relationships.


On a practical level, what are the best, most proven actions an individual lawyer or practitioner can take in order to expand client relationships and cross-sell/service more effectively?

The most important thing for every lawyer to do in order to identify opportunities to expand relationships is be a great listener. Being a great listener is not easy, especially for natural introverts (most lawyers, accountants and other highly educated professionals are natural introverts). Generally, natural introverts have a lot going on in their brains, and as a result they tend to both listen selectively and make many assumptions without being aware that they are doing so.

Lucy Endell Bassli, who served as assistant general counsel, legal operations, at Microsoft for over 13 years, has a great tip for all lawyers and other natural introverts: “Be curious.” Being curious is a skill that requires intention and needs to be honed regularly, especially for natural introverts. By definition, being curious means remaining completely attentive, in the moment without distractions, trying to listen to understand and asking questions. With all the information and thoughts racing around in our minds at any given moment in life, being a truly attentive listener can be challenging. For all human beings, it is a never-ending task to be an attentive listener.

Schedule Time With … Yourself

The greatest hurdle to effectively expanding client relationships over time is the billable hour demands most lawyers and other professionals work under on a daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis. It can be a pressure-cooker. In fact, most lawyers and other professionals work over 2,000 hours a year just to get their billable work done, which leaves very little nonbillable or “extra” time available. Plus, most nonbillable time that is available is devoted to a variety of firm-related activities, such as group and firm meetings, committee or role responsibilities, and administrative and other tasks. So, most lawyers and other professionals operate under the mindset that “I do not have time to work on marketing, business development and expanding client relationships” and/or “I will market myself and work on expanding client relationships when I have time.”

The problem is that with all the current demands on time and unexpected issues that arise, that new or available time never appears. The best practice is to schedule weekly time in your Outlook, Apple or Google calendar for client outreach, even it is just 15 minutes once a week. Once you set a weekly, auto-recurring meeting with yourself, you will be automatically reminded to at least take a few minutes that day or week to initiate reaching out to a few key or past clients. Setting these recurring meetings with yourself minimizes the currently reactive habit most lawyers and professionals use. Automatically recurring meetings with yourself carves out and reminds you to devote time for the important and strategic, but not urgent, task of reaching out to key clients and contacts. But you need to fight the urge to “dismiss” the reminder. If you are too busy to do it right then, change it to the next day or another day. Better yet, make yourself reach out to one client right then and there — before you get distracted or talk yourself out of doing so (which usually takes a maximum of 5-10 minutes).

Before working to expand the relationship, start with being sure the work product and results you have or are already providing to clients are meeting (preferably exceeding) the client’s expectations. Nothing takes the place of excellent results and service — excellence measured not from the lawyer’s point of view but from the client’s. Too many lawyers and firms assume (without overtly asking their clients) that clients are generally satisfied with both the results and services delivered, when many studies show in fact most clients remain less than satisfied. See, “Legal Marketing Spend Is Up — So Is Client Dissatisfaction. Now What?”

Where to start? Given time pressures and limits, you may want to list your top five clients by annual revenue over the past two to five years and schedule time to initiate a call or an in-person conversation to ask them: “How am I/is my firm doing for you so far re: name of case/matter? Is there anything my firm or I could be doing differently or better for you?”

Client Maintenance

Assess your client maintenance program. In practical terms, what does client maintenance consist of? Maintaining a client means making sure you do everything within your power to meet and/or exceed the client’s original expectations when they hired you. This includes what they expect to be the final result or solution to the matter, case or transaction they hired you to handle for them, as well as the communications delivered and provided during the process of getting that final result.

  • Were you proactive?

  • Did you reach out to them even when there was nothing active happening on their matter to let them know what to expect next?

  • Did you provide them with ample time to review and edit any relevant documents related to their matter?

  • How is your “bedside manner”?

  • Do you communicate in a patient, consultative and non-arrogant manner?

  • Do they/did they like working with you and each of the other members of your firm?

If you are merely assuming you already know your key clients’ answers to the questions above, try to ask select or key clients to confirm or clarify your assumptions. At the very least, asking key clients about them will make you aware of additional, more nuanced or detailed information. In fact, when asked, most (generally satisfied) clients will often relay small things that can be done differently or better for them. For example, they may prefer that the firm’s invoice format is edited to accommodate their internal requirements or prefer invoices be delivered online only or directly into their company or entity’s systems. Client maintenance also means having a habit of staying in touch as appropriate over time after the matter, case or transaction concludes.

Every client is a bit different and unique. Certainly, law firm clients share many common characteristics and desires, such as most in-house and general counsel are constantly looking for ways to control their outside legal spend and cost-justify. Plus, in-house and general counsel are constantly looking for ways to be recognized as contributing benefit to their companies, such as by making the legal department a profit instead of a cost center, avoiding lawsuits or risk, closing important transactions, initiating licensing agreements, and other measurably added value to the company and its bottom line.

All clients are individual human beings (either individuals alone or groups of people who work for companies or entities). Each and every individual person is somewhat unique and each has their own mind that houses their expectations, desires, and business, career and/or personal agendas. The only way to learn and know these idiosyncrasies is to ask about them, only after a relationship of trust and confidence is established and as appropriate.

Know When to Reach Out

What situations present the best opportunities for lawyers to initiate reaching out to clients and, as appropriate, asking questions that might lead to information that will allow the lawyer to expand the relationship?

For public companies, required reporting information is publicly available on the SEC website (such as required annual reports, 10K and 10Q reports, etc.); on foreign exchange websites; and the ITC, FTC and other U.S. and foreign websites. These websites and online subscription services that aggregate the information can provide important clues and useful information for lawyers and firms to use to expand key client relationships. It is increasingly important to create a system to regularly monitor, analyze and use public information available about key clients.

If you do not yet have Google alerts and other relevant alerts (such as Westlaw, Lexis, PACER, SEC, USPTO and others) set for key clients, work with your assistant or library, marketing or research staff to help you set them up. It is not enough to simply set these alerts. Someone must regularly review and analyze the information contained in them in order to identify and flag key issues that may raise opportunities for expansion. This takes dedicated time, and most lawyers do not have the time to do this. Some firms have research departments dedicated to this important job.

It is also important to keep track and stay abreast of where each key client is in their “corporate life cycle.” For example, if the key client is a mature company, the company may need to invent new products or services to remain competitive. Or it may need to sell divisions or assets. If the client company is a start-up, the company may need investors or to file for patent protection. Most companies routinely need to raise capital or issue securities. Every client needs some level of regulatory compliance, which varies by industry. It is challenging to keep up with these issues, but there are ways to do so.

One option is Audit Analytics online platform, which collects and analyzes information from publicly available filings to provide over a dozen “red flags” that can be used to identify possible opportunities to expand work for existing clients. It requires an investment to subscribe and a firm employee (such as an assistant, researcher or intelligence analysts, etc.) or an external provider spending at least a few hours every month gathering, compiling, analyzing and disseminating the resulting information. The time to do this and this role is lacking in most law firms (except in some of the world’s largest firms that have these positions and roles).

A related resource was created by Eric Dewey, who compiled a list of 26 possible business indicators that may create an opportunity for new, more and/or other legal services or other professional services a company might need, which include:

  • Financial performance indicators — such as multiple periods of negative cash flow, high debt-to-equity ratio compared to peers, a significant or sudden drop in reserve for doubtful accounts, changes in inventory volume or contingent liabilities, and a low price-to-earnings ratio but high book value.

  • Management practices indicators — such as a review of risk factors and management’s discussion of the risks in public filings; a change in the accounting firm used; lack of a “clean bill of health” from regulators; new positions that have been created; departures of key executives or board members; large insider or institutional trades; dividend cuts; selling off of flagship products, divisions, equipment or property; and significant reductions in employees or benefits.

  • Operational indicators — such as a significant change in the cost or availability of raw materials or supplies, significant price reductions, change in marketing or business strategy, loss of a significant business alliance or partnership, and deterioration of product or service quality.

  • Market condition indicators — such as new competitors, new or alternative providers and/or disruptors, etc.

Editor’s Note: For more from Eric Dewey, see, “Sales Speak: The Reason Companies Aren’t Buying Is How Lawyers Are Selling,” in the February 2019 issue of Marketing the Law Firm.

For privately held and unlisted companies and entities, which do not have public reporting requirements, it is much harder to become aware of key changes and the type of indicators detailed above that may present opportunities for new work that will expand the relationship. In order to gather the information needed to identify possible opportunities, the lawyer or client service officer needs to ask strategic and good questions, and do so only in an appropriately private setting.

If there is no research and/or staff time at your firm to assist and support you in monitoring, analyzing and compiling publicly available information to identify changes, trends, developments and possible opportunities, make it a habit to appropriately ask key clients some strategic open-ended or specific questions, perhaps at the end of a phone call discussing another topic. You can open the discussion by saying, “Before we hang up, I wanted to ask you …”

Here are some examples of great open-ended questions to ask key clients:

  • What’s new?

  • What’s keeping you up at night lately?

  • Anything new going on at your company/entity?

  • How is the company doing versus plans/objectives/budget?

  • How did your company/business do last year?

  • What else can I/my firm do for you?

  • Is there anything new developing over at your company?

  • How is/are the X(s) a transaction, RFI, project, etc. progressing?

Here are some examples of some great, specific questions to ask key clients, as appropriate:

  • Since we have handled three employment discrimination claims for you lately, I wanted to meet to discuss ways to prevent/minimize these in the future — how does that sound?

  • I saw in news that X left your company; do you anticipate that this will cause any issues?

  • I saw your company’s 10-Q and noted a drop in reserves, do you anticipate any collection problems?

  • I saw X entered your company’s market. Are you concerned?

  • I saw your company was sued for X, and your insurance carrier assigned it to another law firm. Do you think we could be considered as an addition to your insurance company’s approved outside counsel list, so that in the future (barring conflicts) our firm could represent you on these types of cases?

  • Who handles the in-house legal work for the company’s subsidiary or “division X”?

If you learn or know that your key client (or another decision-maker or person you know and work with in their company or entity):

  • Is looking for another job/position: If it’s appropriate and does not create a conflict or break confidences, perhaps ask him or her about the type of position they are looking for and consider whether you or your firm have any contacts that could help.

  • Is planning to or is in the process of retiring: Acknowledge it, and then ask when they plan to retire and make note of that date so you can congratulate/recognize it as well as inquire about who will be taking over for him or her.

  • Received a promotion or a new assignment: Reach out to congratulate them, perhaps by sending a card or buying them a meal/drink (as is permissible under company policy and ethical rules). Ask about their new role and responsibilities. Ask who is taking over their previous position; ask for an introduction, as appropriate.

  • Received an award or other recognition. Reach out to congratulate them, ask whether there is a ceremony you can attend, send a card, etc. Send a small plant to their office (as is permissible under company policy and ethical rules).

But what if you hear, learn or know that your client’s company or entity:

  • Is being or will be restructured or reorganized?

  • Announced a new company- or department-wide initiative, such as a new product or service, a cost-cutting program, new markets and/or acquisitions, etc.?

  • Had a major change in earnings or other key financial metrics?

For any of the company-level issues above, carefully consider the best person to raise them with and the most appropriate context and way to do so. After coordinating internally to avoid overlapping communications with a key client, reach out to the most appropriate contact you have in that company/entity and ask about it. Do not email information related to these sensitive and often confidential issues; instead, raise it during a private phone call or an in-person meeting in a private setting.

Other Ways to Expand Relationships

What else can individual lawyers do to enhance and expand relationships?

  • If you do not already know, check the key client’s website or ask key clients whether they are members of or involved in specific professional groups, industry events, and charity or pro bono initiatives, and consider getting involved too — as is appropriate and if you or your firm have a sincere interest in the group(s) or cause(s).

  • As appropriate, ask key clients when their annual meeting is held and whether it would be appropriate for you or another member of your firm to attend; consider doing so for a low flat fee for attending or attending on a complimentary basis. Make notes and act on anything learned that could help the client get deals done, avoid risk, make money or save costs.

  • Schedule an annual reminder to offer all key existing clients a complimentary “annual review” each year at a time that works best for them. Then plan and prepare accordingly. As possible, conduct these confidential review meetings on-site at their offices and record your time as “Complimentary Service – Annual Review Meeting” (and do not charge for it). Or, once a year (in late November or early December, or soon after January 1), take coffee/bagels to the client’s office and have a focused conversation about their organization, during which you ask them about what’s new, changing, evolving, developing, what’s on tap for this year, etc.

  • On LinkedIn:

    • Make sure your LinkedIn settings are set so that you receive an auto-alert when one of your connections changes positions/jobs or posts anything.

    • Make sure you “follow” or “like” all your client’s company/entity pages on LinkedIn and Twitter, and each individual client, as appropriate.

    • Use LinkedIn’s “Advanced Search” feature to identify other decision-makers and executives in the companies/entities whom you may benefit from knowing. Consider whom to ask for an introduction. For example, if the client’s company employs a procurement professional or a legal operations specialist, get to know them, as they currently are or will likely have influence over the selection and hiring decisions for outside counsel and law firms.

    • For more great tips on how to use LinkedIn and LinkedIn Sales Navigator to expand relationships, follow Samantha McKenna on LinkedIn.

  • One of the most important things to do before reaching out to key clients (every time) is to be sure to collaborate internally first before picking up the phone or sending an email. This is increasingly important for lawyers practicing in large law firms where many firm lawyers or groups are serving each key client. Avoiding overlapping, redundant and what could be embarrassing communications with key clients is important. You do not want to give key clients the impression that there is no internal coordination and communication about who is reaching out to whom about what before doing so. As a general counsel recently said: “I get at least five calls or emails from different lawyers in the same firm once a new case filed against our company is made public. This happens all the time! It makes the firm look bad, puts me in an awkward position and wastes my time.”

The above are not simply random ideas, good ideas or “ideas of the moment.” Instead, they are the most proven tactics and strategies that every lawyer can use to expand key relationships. The reality is that developing, maintaining and expanding relationships with key clients (along with maintaining a consistent book of business) over the course of a legal career takes a considerable commitment, time, effort and self-discipline on several levels.

Part Two of this article, next month, will cover what law firms as institutions can do to support the firm’s departments, practice groups, teams and lawyers in their efforts to expand client relationships.


Julie Savarino holds an MBA, a JD, and is a licensed attorney. Over her 30+ year career, she has built a reputation as a leading international, award-winning business and client development and service strategist and coach for lawyers, law firms, and other professional services providers and firms. She has successfully served in-house in client and business development positions for the law firms of Dickinson Wright and Butzel Long and for the accounting firm Grant Thornton. Connect with Julie on LinkedIn or contact her at 734-668-7008,, @JulieSavarino.

Related Resources:

7 Best Practices for Building Client Relationships

5 Ways to Build Stronger Client Relationships from Day One