In Business Development for Attorneys, Setting Strong Agendas is Key

Imagine it’s Thanksgiving dinner and the whole family is sitting around the table waiting for the feast to begin. Unfortunately, something is different this year. The table isn’t set. It’s barren, just a big empty wooden table.  Now, as if things weren’t strange enough, mom comes out with the most beautiful bird you’ve ever seen— just dumps it in the middle of the table! Then, she greedily empties out the dressing, cranberry and sweet potatoes all on top in one heaping mess. Everyone is truly mortified. Has mom lost her mind?

Now, let’s come back to reality and discuss what this scenario has to do with business development and the title of my article. Well, if you are walking into “pitch meetings” without setting an agenda with your prospective client, you should think again about my Thanksgiving dinner mess scenario. It’s very possible that you might be sitting at that messy table and not even realize it.

One of the most important elements to walking a buyer through a buying decision is maintaining control of the meeting. While it might feel natural to pitch, solve and provide your rate structures, most rainmakers know that free consulting isn’t the best approach to business development anymore. The mantra that I teach my clients is “Prescription before diagnosis is malpractice.” Therefore, it is mission critical to ask, listen and learn BEFORE providing your fancy pitch. This is why establishing a win-win agenda for you and your prospect is so important. FYI, I’ve highlighted in bold the actual scripting for you to use. It’s incredibly powerful, just ask any of my clients who now close deals with ease.

Step one: Make it permission based.

After taking some time building rapport with a new prospective client, you could say, “Listen Terry, I know how valuable your time is, and mine as well. I thought in order to make the best use of our time together today, it would be okay for me to establish an agenda. Is that good with you?”

The important element here is to get buy-in from your prospect. The language is very important because it establishes the key point of “making the best use of our time.” This is something everyone is looking for.

Step two: Establish the time and make it uninterrupted.

While it might be fine for a good meeting to go on far longer than anticipated, what about the meetings that are not going anywhere? The last thing you can afford to do is invest two hours with someone who is totally unqualified to work with you or has no interest. Therefore, setting the stage for a 45-60 minutes meeting might be the better play. You can always let it go longer if things are looking up.

Also, you may want to subtly ask for “uninterrupted time” to ensure that your meeting doesn’t get hijacked by a lousy cell phone call. These disruptions can totally sideline a good meeting. In this situation, you might say, “I know we had discussed keeping the meeting to an hour, Terry, is that still okay for you? Great, and I’m going to shut my phone off so we won’t be interrupted.” This is an easy way to set the tone for your prospect to put her phone away.

Step Three: Define the purpose.

While there are hundreds of options for this step, I’m only going to suggest one. Make the purpose of the meeting intentionally vague. You would say, “As I see it, the purpose of the meeting today is to learn more about one another and see if there’s a FIT to work together.” The goal of this point is to show the prospect that only a “fit for both parties” makes an engagement work. It also sets you up on the same level playing field with Mrs. Big Shot CEO or GC. From my experience, getting into the weeds with your prospect on the various elements of the case in the early stages of a meeting like this is a huge mistake.

Step Four: Defining expectations for both parties.

If you recall, I mentioned the importance of asking first and solving later. In this step, we establish the order of events about to unfold. You would say, “In order to see if there’s a fit, I’d like to start out our meeting today by asking you more questions about your situation (or whatever problem she has). I also tend to ask tough questions, is that okay with you?”

So, you might get the “asking questions” part of my script, but why did I mention “tough questions?” The goal of the meeting is not just to learn about someone’s problems, but rather, how urgent they are to solve. This urgency can be developed not by convincing, but by asking those tougher questions and finding the prospect’s pain. By gaining permission to ask the tougher questions, it may force you to actually ask deeper questions than you usually do.

I also ask, “What are your expectations for today’s meeting, Terry?” as a way to keep her engaged and to make this agenda more collaborative.

Step Five: Define a win-win outcome.

Before getting into this step, I’d like to do a little setup with you.  What’s the worst outcome from a new prospect meeting? Is it when they say “no?” In today’s politically correct world, buyers hate saying “no.” Mainly because they are afraid that you might not take no for an answer and keep selling. They’ve been “oversold” before and detested the feeling, just like you do. So, what’s the typical response when you want to tell someone no, but don’t want to deal with them any further? Yes, it the old “I want to think about it” routine. If you hear this from a prospect, know that you are most likely NOT getting this business.

Now, that being said, we need to get to the truth with every prospect we can. Therefore, the best outcome for the meeting is getting to a “yes let’s move forward on this matter.” OR get them to say it’s a “no,” so you can both move on. For the record, I relish every “no” that I hear from attorneys. If it’s not a fit, why would we want to work together, anyway.

As far as the script for this agenda, you would say, “At the end of our meeting, I’d like to suggest one or two possible directions. If we agree there’s a fit and we want to move forward together, that would be great. Also, if we find that there isn’t a fit for whatever reason, I’d like us to agree upfront to call it a ‘no’ and walk away friends. Does that sound fair to you?”

Now if you’re like most attorneys, you’re saying to yourself, “I can’t see myself saying or asking that to a CEO or GC.” I would respond and say, that’s too bad. Because getting to the truth and having a prospect be honest with you is critical to saving you time and getting to a result quickly. This outcome step also releases the “sales stress” that might accompany the meeting. Meaning that by giving permission for your prospect to say “no” will help her to relax and trust you in the process.

In the end, the ability to get buy-in and take control of the prospect meeting is critical to success. Without process, you’re winging it. I rarely hear success stories from someone winging it. I hope you can practice and try this agenda out for yourself. It is truly remarkable the difference it can make in your meetings.

If you’re interested in learning more process steps like this, please go to or email me for a complimentary skills session in my Loop office or by phone.