Reeling in New Clients for His Partners

Reeling in New Clients for His Partners


A 54-year old alumnus of Catholic University Columbus School of Law, Cowan is a partner at Patton Boggs, but his primary mission is to bring in business, not to bill hours. In fact, if he billed more than 500 hours in a year, he would certainly be disappointed.

Recently, Cowan sat down for an interview in the latest installment of our law firm marketing series.

The Interview

Legal Margazine: Tell me about your role in the firm.

Cowan: I work with partners across the firm to help them grow their practices. I bring them leads or work with them to develop leads out of their contacts. In addition, my mission is to develop outside referral relationships for the firm. And, I conduct a three-day seminar four times a year that helps partners and associates learn selling skills.

Legal Margazine: How did the attorneys in the firm respond to the hiring of a business development partner?

Cowan: The experiment has been successful. I am now a tenured partner in the firm. Some people ignored it. Nobody fought against it. Over time, more partners have become participants with me. Now, I would say it is widely accepted.

Legal Margazine: Tell me about your process for identifying prospects for the firm.

Cowan: Three very talented people work with me full time. We look for issues and figure out who was affected. From among those, who do we know? We don´t cold-call. We talk to people we know, which is appropriate and ethical.

We also look at our current client base for areas where cross-selling is appropriate. We get referrals, and I follow all those up. We also have people we work with who bring us opportunities. I essentially choreograph the process from lead to closure. Only after the process concludes will I segue out of the picture and have other partners move forward.

Legal Margazine: How do you facilitate the transition from you to other lawyers?

Cowan: They are in the process from the first meeting. We present as a team. The goal is getting the client, not the spotlight.

Legal Margazine: Do the clients object to having a dedicated “salesperson” calling upon them?

Cowan: I don´t present myself that way. I introduce myself as a partner. I tell clients that I am the head of business development, but I also do work on some clients. If the client wants me involved, or if I have some unique set of experience, I will stay involved.

My job is to bring business to the firm for others to do. I bring people in as early as I can determine that they are the right people. I don´t want to waste my partners´ time and bring them to a lot of things that are not going to pan out. And, a lot of things do not pan out. Part of business development is numbers. The more you do, the more you get.

There are many cases where I will have the initial conversation with the client and determine that we can help. At that point, I will say, “I would like to get you together with our experts.”

Legal Margazine: Do you think business development is different for different practice areas?

Cowan: Selling litigation is different than selling public policy. People who buy public policy are proactive, [but] CEOs are not sitting in their offices thinking, “I might get sued today. I better hire a litigator.” The approaches have to be different.

People do not anticipate litigation. The people who get involved in litigation a lot often focus on the firm they have. It is less likely that they will try someone new. Word-of-mouth is important in litigation. If I get sued, I am going to call my friend for a referral. With litigation, it is also very important that marketing promotes the litigators and the litigation practice so it becomes a known entity.

Legal Margazine: What advice would you give to lawyers trying to grow their practice?

Cowan: Business development is a full-time endeavor and most lawyers need to spend a certain number of hours a week making new contacts, thinking about new people, and looking at issues. When the dry spell comes, there is a pipeline in development. There are new things coming in every day.

Also, build a pyramid. Bring in work, but farm out as much of it as possible to others so there is more time for business development.

Legal Margazine: What business development techniques work for you?

Cowan: Persistence and tenacity are key. Even if we have a good product and the client is inclined to use it, people are busy. Part of business development is staying in front of the potential client and continuing to persuade them that now is the time to act.

Thinking is also important. A lot of people do not think about what motivates someone to buy our services. Looking at it from the perspective of the buyer helps you be a better salesperson and a better lawyer.

Legal Margazine: What doesn´t work?

Cowan: Mass letters do not work. People do not read them. When lawyers spend most of a client meeting talking about themselves, that doesn´t work very well. You are not addressing the client´s needs. Telephone conversations aren´t optimal. Ultimately, you have got to sit across the table from that client.

The buying decision is as much emotional as it is substantive. If the person thinks it would be fun and productive working with you — it is not dispositive, but it helps. Also, knowing how to price and how to close are extremely important. A lot of people get nervous when it comes to both of those, and you need both to be successful.

Legal Margazine: How do you close?

Cowan: It depends, but generically, the way you close is by causing the potential client to decide in their own mind that they want to buy your services. I close by asking, “Would you like us to work for you?”

You also need to know when you are done. If a client says, “Could you write me a proposal?” the meeting is over. The answer is yes. Next, you call them and say, “What do you think of the proposal?” It is amazing to me how many people never ask what the client thought about the proposal.

You want to make your potential customer a co-conspirator. You want them to be working with you to figure out how to do the deal. If it is got to go to a higher level, you want them to be your champion inside the company.

You also want to overcome any problems. Once, we had a client that said, “We wold love to start, but our financial cycle does not begin until January.” It was October. I asked, “What if we could start now and you wouldn´t have to pay us until January?” He said, “Then we can start now.” We made it happen.

Part of good selling is engaging with your client as a peer. In selling, lawyers often deal with the client in a respondent-superior situation, and they are not the superior. So the client says, “Twenty thousand is too much — what about five?” Instead of saying no, the lawyer says yes. At the end of the month when they have billed 100 hours and the bill [should be] $18,000 instead of $5,000 — then they wonder why the managing partner is upset.

Legal Margazine: Why does that happen?

Cowan: I think it is fear of selling and fear of rejection. Lawyers tend to automatically accept what the client says. If the client says they can pay only $5,000, I believe they would like to pay $5,000, but I believe they can pay $12,000 or $8,750 or some other number.

Legal Margazine: Do you think that it is a lack of belief in their value?

Cowan: Yes. If you do not believe you are worth what you are asking for neither will anyone else. Realize that you’re worth $450 an hour, or lower your rate, make less money, but be happy that everybody’s getting a good deal. Clients are going to pay you what they think you’re worth and, in fact, what you think you’re worth.

Legal Margazine: Have you experienced discomfort with business development? What advice do you give people to overcome that discomfort?

Cowan: I don’t experience it anymore. For some people, education breeds comfort. One of the sections of my course is called Common Mistakes Made in Selling. I talk about the different kinds of mistakes people make. I also try to help them understand the kind of mistakes that will lead to no. We talk about the various objections that clients raise and ways that they might answer those objections. If you give them ideas, they will take those ideas and mold them to fit their own style. I also do a refresher lunch for people that have been to the selling skills seminar. It’s very enlightening. Recently, one guy said, “One thing I’ve learned is to ask for the business. The client is always amazed because they haven’t heard it before.”

Legal Margazine: What advice would you give to a young lawyer about business development?

Cowan: Participate. Spend a couple hours a week thinking about leads and forgetting that you’re young. Ask partners if you can participate in the pitch — even if just to watch. Offer to help put together the proposal — it’s an offer that’s almost always accepted. Of course, there’s always a competition between the need to bill hours and business development. Here [at Patton Boggs] they get credit for business development. That’s not true everywhere, but I would still give the same advice. The only way to become an independent lawyer is to have the ability to produce revenue.

Legal Margazine: What do you know now that you wish you had known 20 years ago?

Cowan: That if it doesn’t get done today, it’s not always a problem. Everything doesn’t have to happen immediately.




  1. Dennis Kennedy is a computer lawyer and consultant based in St. Louis, Missouri. He speaks and writes frequently on legal, technology and Internet topics and was named the 2001 TechnoLawyer of the Year by

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