When Lawyers Leave: Client Retention Strategies

One of my more popular columns last year dealt with introducing a new lawyer to your firm. I said the arrival of a new lawyer or group of lawyers was a marketing opportunity both inside and outside the firm. As the dust settles on the collapse of Heenan Blaikie, it’s time to look at the other end of the spectrum—the departure of a lawyer or group of lawyers from a firm. Not many firms go the way of Heenan Blaikie, but individual lawyers or groups jump ship all the time. 

It’s a bit of a stretch to say that the departure of a lawyer from a firm is a marketing opportunity, but it’s certainly time for the firm to check on its retention strategies—which it should have been implementing from the moment it took on clients. Client retention strategies are a lot like quality assurance: they can’t be “inspected in” at the end of the process; they have to be there from the beginning. As soon as someone becomes your client, they become someone else’s prospect, so keep paying attention to them.

Client retention is a fundamental business issue for law firms. It’s one of the four Rs (Revenue, Reputation, Referrals, and Retention) that should guide law firm marketing decisions, as in, “Does this [insert expensive marketing activity here] enhance one of the four Rs?” If not, don’t do it.

That’s the proactive side. The reactive side usually isn’t pretty. Partner A suddenly announces that he’s leaving. He might be taking several colleagues and support staff with him to another firm; he might be setting up his own firm; he might be going in-house with a client; he might be leaving law—whatever. No matter the reason for leaving, what happens to the clients served by that lawyer? Notice I didn’t ask, “What happens to his clients?” Only a sole practitioner has his or her own clients. Lawyers practising in groups serve clients of the firm, no matter how certain they are that said clients will follow them wherever they go.

This is where client retention strategies are really put to the test. If clients have never had contact with anyone at the firm other than the departing lawyer(s), showing the love for the first time now will look cynical at best. You want them to have been invited to events at your firm, met other lawyers and staff, received the firm’s newsletter and client alerts and otherwise had occasion to know the firm as an entity. Then that call from the managing partner telling them the firm will take really good care of them after “their” lawyer leaves will ring true.

To get started on a client retention strategy, make a list of the firm’s top 10-20 clients. Sometimes this alone is a productive exercise: who knew that that little company you incorporated five years ago just overtook a legacy client in annual billings? Now think about what would happen if those clients went to another firm. How much revenue would go with them? How can you show those clients that they’re important to the firm? One win-win tactic is to invite a panel of non-competing clients to speak to your firm about the latest developments in their industry. Besides being excellent education for your younger lawyers, those who really listen will hear a number of opportunities to offer legal services. Make sure the room is packed, allow for networking time, and make sure your clients meet lawyers from practice groups whose services they need but aren’t currently using.

Which brings us to the best client retention strategy of all: cross-selling. The more of your services clients use, the less likely they are to leave your firm to go with a departing lawyer. Think about it: how often do you change banks? You think you can get a better deal elsewhere, but switching accounts is such a pain. There’s the business account and the trust account and the holding company account… Before long, you’re saying, “forget it, it’s not worth it.”

It’s similar with legal services. Let’s say several different corporate/commercial law groups are wooing one of your clients, but that client also has their employment & labour and litigation work with you. Assuming they’re satisfied with all three services (more on that later), that client will think twice about leaving you.

Another retention strategy that few firms undertake is to call clients who left you. Remember that RFP from an existing client that you thought was just a formality, but the work went elsewhere? Call the client and ask how things are going. Send the message that you’re interested in their welfare, not that you want to see if the other firm crashed and burned. Keep lines of communication open so that if by chance the other firm did crash and burn, the client won’t feel embarrassed to come back to you.

Similarly, keep in touch with inactive clients. These are the ones that, as far as you know, still regard you as their law firm but haven’t sent you a file in a while. Again, the message is your interest in their welfare, not when you’re going to get your next file from them. You might find out that they had some dissatisfactions with your firm—better to find that out and do something about it than have them vote with their feet.

Which brings us back to client satisfaction. Right up there with cross-selling as a client retention strategy is checking in with clients to find out how you’re doing—in their eyes. There are many ways to do this and I’ve covered surveying clients in a previous column. You can also hold annual ‘how are we doing?’ sessions; you can distribute ‘end-of-matter’ questionnaires with final bills, or you can set up a client advisory board, to name just a few.

However you go about it, it’s the firm’s responsibility to treat clients like they are clients of the whole firm and to maintain depth of expertise to meet clients’ legal needs. Then when lawyers leave, clients don’t have to.


  1. Great article! I too often come across the “are his clients going with him?” scenario. There is an ongoing challenge of partners running their practices in silos so that clients never do get connected with the firm. I also really like your tips on staying in touch with clients after they change firms, or go inactive. Even the busiest lawyers can carve out time for these valuable investments in client relationships: Each month make three phone calls to past or inactive clients to see how they are doing. Send out two thank you cards or handwritten notes. And step out of the office for an off-the-clock face-to-face with one of your clients at least once a month.

  2. Excellent article. As a lawyer-turned-marketer I really enjoy your columns. Your point about making retention an ongoing effort is very important. All of the strategies you suggest will almost inevitably result in the firm offering better services to their clients, which is good for everyone.