“Thank You”: The Two Most Important Keywords in Business Development

The friendly folks at SLAW remind us regularly when columns are due. On receiving one such reminder when I was at a family gathering, I asked everyone what I should write about next (my family happens to include five young lawyers). The youngest of them responded instantly: “Courtesy—and how little of it young lawyers have.”

This, from a first-year associate? It’s the kind of comment I expect from a grizzled veteran, accompanied by the inevitable “I dunno, kids today….” rant. When I asked her to elaborate, she noted that communications quickly become personal, as in: “If you had read my email on time you wouldn’t need an extension….” “Your proposition is ludicrous…,” etc. Rather than solving the client’s problem, their objective seems to be getting back at the other lawyer.

First, I’d like to congratulate all who had a hand in guiding this young lawyer: she’s got it right, straight out of the gate. It usually takes years to recognize that courtesy is more effective than insults. You can never look bad by being unfailingly courteous.

Next, I’d like to answer the inevitable question, “What has this got to do with marketing?” Well, good manners are essentially about good communication—which is the core of good marketing.

So how is courtesy a marketing tool? First, think referrals. The biggest source of referrals to lawyers is other lawyers, who know that an unfailingly courteous lawyer will make them look good: “We sent our client to Lawyer X because whenever we’ve had dealings with her, she’s been terrific, always polite, always prompt.”

Then think testimonials. As part of a marketing project for one client, I interviewed a series of their clients. One of the common denominators that leapt out at me when I reviewed my notes was the firm’s reputation for good manners. One client commented on how good it made her feel to be represented by someone who kept his cool, was very professional, and acted like a gentleman throughout, when others in the courtroom were behaving like thugs. It probably went down well with the judge too, because the result was very much in this client’s favour. That testimonial now forms part of their marketing materials.

Now think about being proactive. Courtesy communications can remind clients and colleagues that you’re out there. Thanking someone for a referral gives you the opportunity to showcase recent results and remind referral sources about the type of work you want. That note of congratulations on a recent win or successful transaction might arrive just when your colleague is conflicted out of a matter and needs to refer work elsewhere. Your informative response to a question on an industry or bar association listserv boosts your reputation and your visibility.

Courtesy is the oil allows professional relationships to keep functioning.

Conversely, lack of courtesy can cause the pipeline to dry up. Failing to thank for referrals, not returning favours, or not acknowledging contributions can come back to bite you. I was working with a client recently who complained about another lawyer from her previous firm. He often asks for her opinion on matters and then passes on her opinion to his client—as his own. Seldom does any work come her way from this lawyer. I suggested that next time, she should send him a bill, itemizing the service and the time taken, but in place of “Amount due”, insert: “No charge, professional courtesy”.

Courtesy, like charity, begins at home: be courteous to your colleagues. Thanking them personally for their assistance and publicly acknowledging that assistance will make them want to work with you again. You’ll be the one they think of when an important project comes up.

Yes of course courtesy takes time, which is why there’s so little of it. But once you recognize that courtesies can pay off, you can instruct your staff on how to help you. For example, I was once working on some client communications with a very busy lawyer who had time to give me only the bare facts, but asked me to put in “all the things I don’t have time for”. She meant all the preliminary courtesies and the thanks and best wishes on signoff.

Make your assistant your Chief Courtesy Officer: lay down some ground rules about what you want to achieve and then get your assistant to assemble all the necessary details about your contacts (spouse’s names, birthdays, children’s names and ages, hobbies, special interests are just a few). Your assistant can quickly learn which courtesies to use with which contacts. And above all, thank your assistant!

The bottom line is that you never know when courtesy will pay off next. That first-year associate will one day be handing out plum assignments—and she’s got a very long memory!

Oh, and thank you for reading this. I’d appreciate any comments you may have.


  1. I think you need to careful about how you collect and use the kind of personal information that you suggest about contacts, especially clients. With all the privacy laws out there now, you may inadvertently cross a line. For instance, in Canada, we have to remove a former client’s email address from all newsletter mailing lists after they have been inactive for 2 years. Some contacts/clients may also find it very discourteous (if not downright creepy) if it becomes obvious to them that you are tracking personal information about them like their birthday and the name of their spouse. At present, I get birthday cards from my financial planner and my real estate agent and I find that a bit disquieting – especially the real estate agent because I bought my house more than 10 years ago and haven’t spoken to her since.