Don’t Forget Your Former Clients

Businesses must constantly adapt to rapidly changing market conditions in order to grow. To advance and succeed, they seek out new prospects to fuel their revenue. We are no different. Amid the daily whirlwind of a busy practice, we try to carve out some time to identify new client opportunities, but in the process, we sometimes overlook the ones we already have.


Consider your law firm’s clients. They can be divided into three tiers based on their relationship to the firm and their likelihood to yield new business. In Tier One are your existing clients. They are currently sending you work, generating revenue, and justifiably dominating your focus. Tier Two includes your former clients. Because of your past work with them, you are familiar with their business, even if some of your information is now outdated. In Tier Three are prospective clients, the ones you hope to secure if your business development efforts are successful.

Business developers tend to focus on the matters available through current clients and prospects, so they engage mostly with Tiers One and Three. They endeavor to provide excellent work for their existing clients. They cross-sell (when they can) and pitch for new matters (when appropriate). In whatever time they have left, they look to  prospects in their network—like that friend from law school who now heads up in-house litigation at a target company, but who has not yet sent over any work. They diligently prepare CLEs that will entice the prospect to consider the firm for the next matter. But don’t forget the second tier—those clients who engaged you in the past but have fallen off your radar.

Tier Two is often a significant missed opportunity for client interaction and development. Former clients moved on, perhaps because they switched counsel or downsized after the financial crisis. Perhaps they engaged your firm for a one-off litigation or M&A transaction, but never became an institutional client. Perhaps you were not the relationship partner at the time, so you intentionally avoided an active pursuit. But the fact is they were once a part of your practice. You have more of a connection there than you do with a cold prospect with whom you have not worked. Your pitch will immediately have more background and relevance than the other firms who might be pitching them for the same work. Through your prior work, even if it was less sophisticated than the work you do now, the client has a sense of what it is like to work with you.

Pursuing Tier Two opportunities is a bit like searching between the seat cushions for lost change, but in a competitive landscape like today’s law firm environment, it can be a profitable exercise. Be methodical so that the process is efficient and yields results. Make a list of all the clients you’ve worked with to date. Invariably, you will discover several companies that are out of business. You will also recall matters you touched and promptly forgot. Look up the people from those matters on LinkedIn. Are any of the people you knew then still at the company? Chances are they have a more senior role now.

But before you call your past client and jump right into a pitch, ask yourself why they stopped engaging you. You might assume any number of possible reasons:

  • The client was dissatisfied with the result.
  • Your firm’s rates were too high.
  • The client brought the work in-house.
  • The client simply doesn’t need that type of legal work anymore.


Times change. The conditions that were true for the client a decade ago are probably no longer relevant. And if you were a junior lawyer when you last worked with the client, you may not have had a full picture of their experience. It’s safe to assume that you don’t know what their needs are now, or what their appetite might be for re-engaging now that you have more experience, or possibly a new firm to bring to the table. You certainly have nothing to lose in rekindling a dialog.

Now, how do you re-engage with clients who have not recently used your services? Should you just call them out of the blue and “check in” hoping that they eagerly reply? Should you just play it cool and wait for them to contact you? They could simply Google you if they really wanted to find you, after all. This kind of thinking can often keep lawyers from being proactive. They assume that the client will call when they have another matter. But if a significant amount of time has passed, it is incumbent on you to get back in touch. Do some research online to see what the company is up to now, then be honest in your approach: “I don’t know if you remember me but I worked a few matters for your company when I was a junior associate back in ’06. I see from your website that you are launching several new technology products and thought it would be a good idea to get back in touch given my emphasis in cyber security.” With any luck, they will remember you fondly, and you can leverage your past relationship for a future meeting.

Your most productive business development time most likely will be spent on Tiers One and Three. If you are already harnessing these relationships and your originations are thriving, no need to pound the pavement any further. But for those looking for leads to pursue, Tier Two is far preferable to a brand-new prospect with whom you have no relationship. Sometimes, the most lucrative paths are the ones we’ve already paved.

About the Author

David Ackert is the principal of The Ackert Advisory, a business development consultancy for professional services firms. Contact him on Twitter @DavidAckert.

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