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Turn Negatives into Positives Using the Contrast Principle

No lawyer has all positive qualities. When prospects think about hiring your services, they see both strengths and weaknesses.

Positive qualities that distinguish you from other lawyers are your competitive advantages. Negative qualities are your competitive disadvantages.

Naturally, you hope prospects conclude that your positives outweigh your negatives. And to help make your case, you try to neutralize negatives, so prospects think they are not important. Still, you can’t be sure what impact those negatives will have on your overall presentation.

Here is your marketing challenge: How do you take negative aspects of your services and change them into positives so the negatives don’t cause your prospect to hire another lawyer?

In his book, Influence (Morrow, 1984), psychology professor Robert Cialdini discusses principles that persuade people at the subconscious level. One of these, the contrast principle, allows you to change how prospects perceive facts.

The contrast principle says: You can change how a person perceives something by changing the event that precedes it.

Since prospects’ perceptions are their reality, when you change their perception, you change what they believe is true.

Here is how the contrast principle works. (Yes, you can try this at home): Prepare three buckets of water. One with cold water. One with hot water. And one with water at room temperature. Place one hand in the cold water and your other hand in the hot water. Then at the same time, place both hands into the room temperature water.

Your surprise illustrates the contrast principle. The hand that was first in cold water now feels like it is in hot water. And the hand that was in hot water now feels like it is in cold water. Yet, you can plainly see both hands are in the same water.

How each hand perceives the room-temperature water depends on the event that preceded it, namely whether your hand was first placed into water that was cold or hot.

Another example: A man goes into a fashionable clothing store and tells the clerk he wants to buy a three-piece suit and a sweater. If you were the clerk, which would you show him first?

The contrast principle says always sell the more costly item first. Because after the man buys the suit, the cost of a sweater —even an expensive sweater—will seem small by comparison.

If the clerk first showed the man a $500 sweater, the man might hesitate because that sounds expensive for a sweater. But if the man had just purchased a $2000 custom-tailored suit, $500 for a sweater does not seem out of line.

How the man perceives the price of the sweater changes depending on whether it is the first item he considers, or whether he first buys the expensive suit.

Now, to your law practice: Identify something you believe prospects perceive negatively about you or your services. To make it easy, let’s use your fee. If you want your prospect to perceive your fee as fair and reasonable, before you state your fee, quote something much higher. Then when your prospect hears your fee, he will perceive it as lower than he would have had you not quoted the higher number.


Wrong: “Mr. Jones, I can prepare your estate plan for $12,000.” Mr. Jones, in shock, thinks, “$12,000! That’s more than I paid for my first house!” (This is an old example, when estate taxes were a bigger problem than they are today.)

Right: “Mr. Jones, this estate plan will save your family over $200,000 in federal estate taxes. I can prepare this estate plan for you and your family for just $12,000.” Now Mr. Jones thinks, “Not much at all compared with the amount of taxes my family will save. What a bargain!”


Wrong: “Ms. Smith, I can represent you in your injury claim and my fee will be one third of the recovery.” Ms. Smith thinks, “This lawyer gets one third of my money!”

Right: “Ms. Smith, to handle an injury claim like yours, some lawyers charge as much as 40 percent of the recovery, and even 50 percent if the case goes to trial. But, Ms. Smith, I’ll be pleased to represent you—and aggressively protect your interests—for just one third of the amount we collect.” Ms. Smith thinks, “This lawyer is much more generous than those other greedy lawyers.”

The contrast principle holds true for any information you need to disclose, whether it is your fee, turnaround time for projects, even the number of years your client might spend in prison.

“Mr. Criminal, most people who commit armed robbery get 10 to 15 years in state prison. The district attorney has offered us a plea bargain that will make you eligible for parole in just five years. I recommend that you accept this plea bargain.”

Five years sounds short after you quote 10 to 15 years. But five years would have sounded like a long time if you had not quoted the other numbers first.

“Ms. Client, under normal circumstances I would need three to four weeks to complete this project. But I understand this matter is a priority for you, so I promise to complete it and have it on your desk within ten days.” By itself, ten days might seem like a long time, but not when first compared with three to four weeks.

When you reach the point in your discussion where you must disclose a fact that might be perceived as negative, describe something more extreme in the preceding sentence. Then your prospect will perceive the information you disclose as more reasonable. In fact, you might turn a competitive disadvantage into an advantage based simply on how you present it.

Trey Ryder

Trey Ryder specializes in Education-Based Marketing for lawyers. He offers three free articles by e-mail: 11 Brochure Mistakes Lawyers Make, Marketing Moves Most Lawyers Miss, and 13 Marketing Misconceptions That Cost Lawyers a Fortune. To receive these articles, send your name and e-mail address to and ask for his free packet of marketing articles.

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Filed Under: Featured StoriesMarketing

About the Author: Trey Ryder specializes in Education-Based Marketing for lawyers. He offers three free articles by e-mail: 11 Brochure Mistakes Lawyers Make, Marketing Moves Most Lawyers Miss, and 13 Marketing Misconceptions That Cost Lawyers a Fortune. To receive these articles, send your name and e-mail address to and ask for his free packet of marketing articles.

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