Small Law Firms

The Practice: Fewer Clients

“Fewer clients.” This is the ideal that began the story of the transformation of Jerry Maguire.

Haven’t seen the movie? Watch it. Absorb it. It’s a great premise by which to build your practice.

Now that January is over, an invaluable piece of paper walked in to my office. In prior years, I attempted to mentally keep track of who called me and who hired me, but I wound up forgetting a lot of the details. This year I’ve made some changes. On a monthly basis, I’m reviewing prospective clients who called, as well as who referred them, who took their calls, their case types, and whether I was retained.

The percentage of calls-to-retained used to be “most.” Most potential clients that came to my office retained me. I made it easy. I’d bring them in, spend some free time, smile a lot, negotiate the fee, and get the case.

Now that percentage has gone down, way down.…

This past month it was 39 percent. Eighteen calls, seven new cases.

Eleven potential clients didn’t hire me.

I am thrilled.

Here’s more. Of the 18 calls, my office passed 11 along to me pursuant to another new policy. Potential clients calling are asked (after determining their legal matter is something I know about) if they are “calling to retain” me, and then they are told my fee structure. To both issues these 11 didn’t immediately hang up. I was eventually retained by seven of those 11. Now we’re at 64 percent of the people who claimed they were calling “to retain” me, and aware of the fees, eventually hiring me. The remaining seven callers ended their conversation with the receptionist or another lawyer in the office, and were either referred to other lawyers or told “thanks for calling.”

The other four that I spoke to, who did not become clients? One caller had the type of case I don’t handle, but he was referred by a lawyer. One decided to handle it on his own, and another is thinking about it. I told the last one that he “didn’t need me.” It was worth stopping work on other cases and having a conversation with all of these people.

I know you are thinking, “Why didn’t you bring the others in and do a free consultation?” “Why not at least talk to them?” You know, say happy things. Try to sell the client.

Why? I’m not a car salesman. I’m no longer interested in people coming in, taking an hour of my time to kick the tires and sit on the leather interior. Yes, I’m aware free consultations are a staple of contingent fee lawyers. I’m not one of them. With few exceptions, I don’t do free consultations anymore. You want to engage in the show, the “audition,” knock yourself out. I did that my first ten years in practice -– and you should too if you’re building a practice and your only reputation is a perceived one on the internet.

In my early days of private practice I took cases all over the place, negotiated fees, did free consultations, met clients outside the office. Understand that what I’m advising is not going to work if you are a dime-a-dozen lawyer or have no reputation in the community (and that doesn’t mean the online community).

In this age of an ongoing crappy economy,lawyers are undercutting each other on fees, and plunging their brains out on the internet, hoping for this kind of call 37 times a day: “I found you on the internet and have $500 in my pocket,” So, the notion of fewer clients is blasphemy. I may ask whether you want ten $1,000 clients or one $10,000 client, but more and more the answer is “No one is going to pay me $10,000, because I practice from Starbucks in my shorts, and I sell documents on the internet. I need every person that breathes and has a few dollars to hire me so I can pay my SEO guy.”

There’s nothing wrong with a competent “volume” lawyer. People need access to lawyers, and if there’s a lawyer that will charge $69 to competently handle a traffic ticket, or $150 to write an air-tight will, that’s great. You have to do a lot of those to make a decent living.

But if you want to handle serious and complex matters for clients who want that one lawyer to give them the attention and skill they need, you have to set a goal of fewer clients. You have to have a good screening process -– even if it’s just you doing the screening. Do not invite everyone in your office to take up your time when they don’t even have the money to pay for the free coffee you poured them or the candy you gave their kids.

I know, you don’t quote fees over the phone. But you’re wasting your time.

Regardless of the whining that everyone wants a virtual lawyer and no one will have a law office in three years, there are still clients out there whose main concern is not how cheap they can get representation. They’re not looking to buy their business contract on the internet or hire some liar with a cool website. These clients aren’t looking to waste your time. They want your attention, and they’re willing to pay for it.

When you stop trying to collect clients and start choosing them instead, your numbers will go down. But the important numbers will go up. Way up.


Brian Tannebaum will never “get on board” at the advice of failed lawyers who were never a part of the past but claim to know “the future of law.” He represents clients, every day, in criminal and lawyer discipline cases without the assistance of an Apple device, and usually gets to work (in an office, not a coffee shop) by 9 a.m. No client has ever asked if he’s on Twitter. He can be reached at bt@tannebaumweiss.com.

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