The One Question Every Attorney Should Ask Their Clients


By: Nick Manty

Thursday, September 9, 2021

The One Question Every Attorney Should Ask Their Clients

This guest post was authored by Nick Manty, the Minneapolis and Salt Lake City Marketing Manager for Barnes & Thornburg LLP.

The Question

It can be difficult to find a natural way to ask for business without feeling like you're constantly selling.

While your ultimate goal may be to sell your services, it shouldn’t be the focus of these critical client conversations – at least not until you’ve discovered what the client needs and wants.

Enter the open-ended question. And my favorite variation:

What keeps you up at night?

This is a quick way to get to the root of your clients’ and prospective clients’ pain points. Asking this question instead of trying to sell a certain service allows you to listen to your clients’ actual needs, instead of making assumptions. It’s a more natural way to break into a conversation about your services and helps you connect on a personal level. But before you ask, be prepared for the unexpected, including problems that you might not be able to solve.

There are many other ways to open this dialogue:

  • What are your biggest pain points?
  • What regularly falls to the bottom of your task list?
  • How can we make your life easier?
  • How can we make you look better internally?1
  • What project are you most reluctant to work on and why?

When asking any of these, it’s important not to follow up with "...I can help with that…"

Give your client time to respond, and most importantly, listen. Remember the goal is to be client focused, and to inquire genuinely about their needs without giving them a hard sell.

What to Do with the Answers

Now that your client has opened up and told you what's causing them the most stress, what do you do with it?

This is where you have to get creative. Sometimes the answer aligns with your areas of expertise. If your client says "I really need help with my new employee handbook" and you're an employment attorney, great! If you're a tax attorney, this just got a little harder. The obvious answer is to refer the work to another attorney in your firm that has experience in the area.

What to Do if Your Firm Can’t Help but Someone Else Can

If you can't do the kind of work your clients are asking for, you should refer it out to someone you trust at another firm. This is where keeping a robust professional network pays off. If you work in family law, find a tax and bankruptcy attorney you like and your clients can trust. As you continue to forge these connections, not only will you be providing your clients with a more holistic service, you'll likely also develop a great referral source of your own.

The same general principles apply outside of legal services as well. If your client needs a new bookkeeper or HR professional, you want to be able to make that connection. Having knowledge and contacts outside of the legal profession is integral when serving as the “hub” for others – and provides a unique value that clients don’t soon forget.

What to Do if You Can’t Help or Refer it Out

This will happen, especially when your clients rely on you as a trusted advisor. This is when you need to put on your listening hat and act in your capacity as a creative problem solver. Maybe you just need to be a sounding board or break out a white board and do some real brainstorming. If you can find a way to add value without trying to sell your services, you'll be their first call when they have work in your area.

Ask open ended questions that spark conversation, speak and listen proportionately (1 mouth, 2 ears), and know that generally, people like to engage with those that are genuinely interested in their/their businesses well-being. So be that genuine person that they grow to trust and rely on – for legal advice or for recommendations.

After studying psychology at the University of Minnesota, Nick Manty started working as a Firm Administrator for a boutique law firm specializing in bankruptcy and creditors' rights. In 2018 he joined Barnes & Thornburg as the Minneapolis and Salt Lake City Marketing Manager. At Barnes he oversees all marketing initiatives for the Minneapolis and Salt Lake City markets, working with a team of skilled professionals from across the country. In addition to his marketing work, Nick developed and oversees the firm's professional development program. He is also active in NALP, LMA, and the ALA. He recently concluded his term on the ALAMN’s board of directors and stepped into a national role on the organization’s chapter resource team where he advises local chapter leadership across the country. In his free time, he is an avid cyclist and enjoys training his dog, Cowboy.


1This one will get you lots of bonus points.

This post was written by a guest blogger. Although this article was thoroughly reviewed by NBI staff, the views, opinions and positions expressed within the post are those of the author alone and do not represent those of NBI. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within the post are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.

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