Small Law Firms

The Practice: ‘Money’s Not A Problem,’ And Other Reasons To Hang Up The Phone

One of the main differences between small law firms and Biglaw is who hires the lawyer. While both receive calls from the actual individual (person) client, general counsel, or corporate representative, the consumer-type disciplines (personal injury, criminal, divorce, employment (plaintiff), and immigration) are usually smaller shops, and usually get the call from the actual person needing representation.

Most of the time this person has never hired a lawyer. So the conversation will be much different than the call from a general counsel who understands typical billing formats, or an insurance company agent, who tells you what you’re going to bill and not bill.

I’m writing today for those who’ve been in small law firms for less than five years. The rest of you know the drill, you’ve heard the buzzwords and phrases, and (hopefully) you’ve taken control of your time in a way that shortcuts the worthless conversations from potential clients. From a business perspective, small law firm practice is an exercise in cash flow. While lines of credit are available, many small law firms don’t like to go that route. So every potential client is important, especially when you haven’t reached that stride where you can claim a “book of business.”

Saying “no” before the client makes it clear that it’s “no,” is tough. Did you just give up money? Was there another way to get the client “signed up?”

I draw lines. I am criticized for that, but it’s my practice and it’s worked for me. Normally when I don’t get the case these days, I hear about who got the case, which vindicates my choice to shortcut the conversation.

A recurring theme here is that what works for me may not work for you. OK. Did I ever indicate I give a crap?

Back in February, I wrote about “Fewer Clients,” where I talked about the philosophy of my practice (do you even have one?).

Here are some specifics, the things that end my interest in the conversation, or cause me not to even return the call.

1. Incessant name dropping.

I heard you the first time you said you were referred by what’s-his-name. The fourth time, I lost interest. Now I don’t care. I’m not giving you a discount, I’m not impressed that you know him — hell, I don’t even know him, and it’s worse if I know him, but have nothing good to say about him. Name droppers want something. I have nothing for them.

2. Chronic reschedulers.

These idiots are either shopping, or don’t really care about their legal problems. After they hire you, they’ll continue to shop and not care about their legal problems. I don’t reschedule anyone who fails to appear (save for an emergency, which never happens). If you cancel before the meeting, I’ll reschedule once. After that, you’re wasting my time. Go play with another lawyer.

3. “Money’s not a problem.”

People with money don’t say this. Anyone who says this is someone you will wind up chasing down for the balance, after they’ve negotiated your fee, and after they’ve paid your bill late every time.

4. People with a buffer.

Your mom is not my client, nor is your brother who “knows a lot of lawyers,” or your buddy who is a lawyer in another state. I am your lawyer, you are my client. Any other arrangement doesn’t work.

5. Clients looking for a ghostwriter.

No, I’m not going to let you “pay me for my time” to review the work you’ve done on your case, edit it, and let you file it. That’s another lawyer. I don’t ghostwrite, and I’m not having you use my incredible talent on your crappy work so when there’s a problem you can accuse me of screwing it up. You want a lawyer, hire one.

Many of you take all these types of clients. They’re all problems. I understand you may take them because you need the cash. When you don’t, they are the first types of clients you reject, and reject quickly.

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

(hidden for your protection)

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