Before I provide some advice on client relations that will be deemed “totally wrong” by some and “good advice” by me pretending to be anonymous, I wanted you all to know that I bought a wireless printer that allows me to send documents from my phone, wherever I am, to my printer at my office. Although I currently have no use for this feature in my law practice, and haven’t in 17 years, I hope this puts me in better stead with those of you that think I hate tech.
Now let’s talk about clients, for those of you that have some.
The core of running a practice is
machines and toys clients. That you are able to do competent work for clients doesn’t matter if you are not versed in the retaining and retention of them. The retention of any client starts at the initial contact, not when they come to your coffee shop office with a check. For those of you who have practices where you never meet with clients, your initial contact with them (unless it’s them using your website as an ATM to buy documents) is even more important.
While you may be in a position where the client is only calling you, most clients are calling several lawyers. Regardless, you are now auditioning for the job. That audition begins at the very moment you first speak to the client, or the person calling for the client….
First thing to remember is that this isn’t a social call nor should it be handled like one. Nothing wrong with a few pleasantries, but the client or referral source is calling for a specific reason and that needs to be immediately recognized by you. They generally want to know if you can fix their problem and the cost. I know many of you think the key to getting a case is being “nice,” but trust me, clients are looking for advocacy first.
If you have a receptionist, ask that basic information be taken down before you get the call. Some clients won’t give any information, and that’s just something you have to deal with and treat accordingly on a case-by-case basis. If you’re wondering about privilege issues, keep in mind that the information you need to determine whether it’s a good call to take is usually limited to the type of case. The client doesn’t need to tell the receptionist every sordid detail (although some of them will).
If you are answering your own phone, well, you’re probably wasting countless hours weeding through shoppers with no money or no case and so it may take a while before the conversation becomes something meaningful. With a receptionist (and I don’t know if virtual receptionists will ask more than “name” and “number” but I’m sure one will chime in here with a link to their services), you have the ability to refer the client to someone else or have them advised you just don’t do that work, without having to waste time listening to their life story.
The first thing to do is control the conversation. Clients don’t know what is important to the lawyer and so they will generally start with “once upon a time.” If you don’t control the conversation it will be a while before you get to the issue at hand — so you take the conversation there. “Hi, I understand you have a (situation, lawsuit, problem) and need to hire a lawyer.” Can you tell me if there is a (pending lawsuit, court date, client in jail)?” The reason you do this is two-fold. One, it keeps the conversation focused on the legal issue at hand, instead of you hearing about things that can be discussed if the conversation turns in to a client. Two, it causes the client to start focusing on your abilities as a lawyer. If you know at the outset that there is a pending lawsuit, you can ask when it was filed, served, or if an answer or other pleading has been filed. By controlling the conversation, you limit your time on the phone and let the client know you are competent to help them. And don’t ever forget to learn about upcoming deadlines, especially statute of limitations issues. Remember in law school when you were told that “issue spotting” was the most important part of lawyering? It’s still true, and I don’t think there’s an app for that. You don’t want to be the lawyer who didn’t realize that tomorrow is the filing deadline for the lawsuit. You want to sit on the phone all day and learn nothing? Say to a client, “Tell me what’s going on?”
If you have a receptionist, and you are unable to take the call, try to obtain some documents before you speak to the client. “Mr. Guest is busy commenting on a blog right now but asked if you could send him a copy of the (whatever) for him to review and then he’ll call you back.” Again, some clients won’t do this, but for the ones that will (and a lot will), this is a good point of engagement. You’ve expressed an interest in the issue at hand and a willingness to put in some time to review the relevant document(s). It’s much better than just not being around to take the call. Once you get the client on the phone, you can already have pulled a relevant statute or case on point and begin to educate the client from the start.
There’s something else that lawyers could do more: engage the client after you’re hired. I never let a client leave my office without a couple of assignments, whether they are new or recurring clients. Some clients are happy to sit back and wait for your call, but others will ask, “Is there anything I need to be doing?” So give them something to do. Even before you meet the client, ask them to write down a summary of the situation. Some will be on an index card, and some will be 23 pages. Again, this engages the client. When you send them case documents, ask them to not only review them, but to make notes and get back to you — with a deadline — and follow up on the deadline.
A final word on quoting fees over the phone as part of the initial contact.
The potential client should at least know your “minimum” retainer and hourly rate. That part of the conversation should be after you know the details of the situation. Any client who insists on knowing “how much you charge” at the outset generally is not going to be a very good client, if a client at all. There’s nothing wrong with advising that your fees are negotiable or flexible if you choose to operate your practice that way, but there is no reason to advance the relationship with a meeting when the client has no ability to pay you.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.