Practice Pointers, Small Law Firms

The Practice: Client Control, Before It’s Out Of Control

As lawyers, we often look past obvious signals when we’re about to get a new client. The client comes in, decides to hire “me” (yes, me!), and pays. What could be bad?

That the client showed up an hour late with no excuse or apology, or spent the hour with you talking about how his friend’s case worked out, or the opinion of his cousin who is a lawyer in another state is of no matter. We have a new client, a new check, and that’s all that we need.

I believe in the philosophy that sometimes the best client is the one you turn down. I’ll end a meeting after 10 minutes because the client’s expectations are only met through unethical behavior or by going to see the wizard. Or after meeting with the client, I’ll decline representation because even though the client can pay, I believe I’m not a good fit in terms of the client’s needs as far as time outside of the representation. Of course, then there’s the high fee you quote a client you just don’t want to represent who says (oops) “OK.”

Then there’s the client where everything seems great, until the day after you are retained….

You know, the client who hired you Monday calls Tuesday for an update, then his wife calls Tuesday afternoon for an update, and then the client calls at 8:30 p.m. that same day for an update, and on Wednesday you receive a 12-page letter with strategy suggestions and a list of things to do? Wednesday he calls in a panic about something that doesn’t deserve panic, and requests a meeting Thursday in your office with him, his wife, and his friend who is a lawyer. He sends you an email at 10 a.m. and calls the office at 10:43 a.m. because he hasn’t heard from you.

Some lawyers believe this is all part of being a lawyer. “It’s all about the clients,” right? True, we’re here to serve the clients. But we’re not here to serve one client all day, every day (unless you have a one-client practice.)

We read over and over again about how to run and control our practices when it comes to staff and tech and offices. The theory that “the client is paying so they can do what they want” is a quick road to misery. Controlling clients is part of controlling your practice. If a client is monopolizing your time — that’s your fault.

The first thing you have to realize is that client behavior should be part of the discussion at the initial consultation. You can and should set out the time aspect of the attorney/client relationship at the beginning in order to avoid the frustration of having a blow-out with the client during the case.

The first question I usually ask is whether the client wishes to maintain their own file. Clients who want to maintain their own file are usually the types that are in need of constant information. That’s okay, but I want to know that before I get into the case as it may determine whether I charge a flat or hourly fee. I then talk about the best time to reach me: “Not on the weekends unless it’s an emergency,” and “Mornings are bad as I’m usually in court.” Many clients will interrupt me as I go through the speech and say, “I’m not the type to call a lot.” Bingo. This is the client who will “wait to hear from me.” Perfect. I also discuss e-mail and texting — specifically that sending me either will not assure a quick response, and that if they need a quick response, call the office.

I then ask if there is anyone else that wants to be involved in discussing the case (spouse, parent, boss, partner, probation officer in two other open cases). The answer is usually “no,” but if I get names, I can then ask how often they may call or be expecting calls, and again, figure that in when quoting a fee. There is nothing worse than getting into a case thinking your time will be spent one way, and then spending it on things you never contemplated.

Most important, I introduce every new client and their family to the receptionist (yes, I know having a receptionist is so 2009), and tell them that she always knows where I am, and can get in touch with me. I advise that any messages they leave with her will be immediately forwarded to me and that there are things they can tell her without having to wait to talk to me such as that they received a document in the mail or need to change an appointment date or time. Give your clients someone else to talk to for routine issues, and you won’t be wondering why you are spending all this time on the phone answering non-legal questions. Yes, sometimes resolving the issues of dealing with difficult clients involves investing in your practice.

Unless you are willing to discuss the manner in which you will have a relationship with a client, you will be spending your time getting frustrated about things that have nothing to do with the scope of representation.
The time when you are getting retained is always a positive one — the client likes you and pays you. It’s the best time to attempt to set out the parameters of the relationship, so that things stay that way.

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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