What is the Most Important Question to Ask Prospects at Your First Meeting?

So you’ve done your marketing. Perhaps driven great web traffic; perhaps a referral is at the door; or perhaps you sitting across from a person you’ve represented before.

So what are you going to ask? When are you going to ask it? How are you going to ask it?

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As lawyers we are pretty much trained to think in a linear fashion. One event follows another. Have you noticed that non-lawyers don’t always think that way. Sometimes I’m meeting with clients and I think they’ve got what we called as kids “Mexican Jumping Beans” in the brain. Darting here and there, from topic to topic, actor to actor, without any rationale connection.

It is certainly part of your job to manage the conversation so that you can acquire the information necessary to identify the legal issues and/or problems. How are you going to do that?

Do you “begin with the end in mind” as Stephen Covey is so often promoting? Do you have a plan at all?

I began this with a series of questions because they cause me to think about the way I handle an initial meeting with a prospect. There are at least three key issues you’ve got to address in that very first meeting.

1. Can you trust me with your legal needs. Too often we think because we have nice offices or a great receptionist this part of the equation has already been met. Believe me we needn’t think too much of ourselves here. The person sitting across from you has on their mind the most important legal issue of the century (to them). You see it’s the most important because it’s probably the only one they are dealing with right now. They’ve got to decide for themselves in the first meeting: “Can I entrust my legal problem with this particular lawyer.” So how will you answer this (usually non-verbalized) question?

2. Can I achieve what you want? There’s just way too many lawyer shows on television. Look, I love Denny Crane as much as the next guy, but let’s get serious. It’s pretty difficult to resolve the legal problems of our clients the way they are resolved on television. BUT, this may be the only picture of conflict resolution your prospective client has seen or understands. Don’t leave that initial meeting without understanding what the client wants and whether you can actually achieve it. Naturally, most clients begin with expectations that simply can’t be satisfied. For example, if you ask a person charged with burglary, “What would be the ideal result you’d want me to achieve for you?” The answer most likely is, “I’d like all this to go away and disappear.” You and I may think that is unreasonable, but Denny Crane makes that happen in less than an hour (after considering commercials). Get real about what you can do to help. Now is the time to set reasonable expectations, not when you’ve got a big bill you’re trying to get paid.

3. Can you afford to pay me to help you? I’ve never understood why lawyers are so fearful about talking about money with clients. Yet, time and time again, we hear complaints that the client never knew how the attorney was to get paid. That’s our fault. We’ve got to treat our practice like a business and not a hobby. Have you noticed that in order to get out of the doctor’s office you’ve got to go directly by (and stop) at a payment/billing window? Why is that? Now I don’t suggest that we imitate the doctors on this one. We should do better. Let’s get the money issues out of the way at the outset. It will make your relationship much simpler and will most likely reduce the number of conflicts you have with otherwise well served clients.

On each of these questions, think in advance about how you are going to address them in the initial conference. A little advance planning will go a long way to insuring your retention, a good client experience and payment sufficient to keep the lights on.

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