Client Contact

I’m closing in on 250 columns at Above the Law, devoting many of them to mistakes that I’ve recently witnessed (or heard about) (or, I should say to protect the privilege, simply ginned up out of whole cloth).

Remarkably, I’ve not yet written about an obvious error that occurs regularly: If you say that you will communicate with someone on a certain date, communicate with the person on that date.

Period.

Think for a minute about how often people screw this up, both in-house and at law firms.

In-house, some crisis arises. You take the helm. You send an email to the relevant folks in the organization saying, “I’ll get to the bottom of this, and you’ll know the answer by the close of business my time tonight.”

The close of business comes and goes, and what happens?

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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….

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Everyone has been mistreated — by bureaucratic institutions, unhelpful sales people, or phone systems that make you press ten buttons only to be left on hold for half an hour.

Given how awful the “usual” service is, it’s really not that hard to impress people with the quality of service that you provide. But, remarkably, lawyers (and others) screw this up all the time.

Suppose (to recount an incident I heard about recently) you’re asked to handle a trivial legal issue at a time when you’re swamped with other stuff. You are able to help; you are simply unable to help today. Consider two ways of handling this: First, silently ignore the issue for several days until you have time, and then deal with it. Second, tell the client that you’re currently swamped, but that you’ve received the request and your best guess is that you’ll handle the matter, say, early next week. If you’ve misunderstood, and this is an emergency, the client should let you know, so you can move this task up in the queue.

This should be an easy choice, shouldn’t it?

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In the late 90’s, lawyers taking credit cards was not the norm.

Stores took credit cards. Restaurants took credit cards. Lawyers took checks and wire transfers, and yes, cash in rubber bands. It was typical lawyer arrogance and ego – taking credit cards turned the lawyer in to a merchant, and paying a portion of the fee (because if you check your state ethics rules and opinions you may find you cannot charge the client for the percentage you pay the credit card company… oops) for the convenience of the client being able to “charge it” was seen as unattractive.

I didn’t take credit cards at first, a couple years later I started, and now I take them under certain conditions. One, I don’t advertise that I take credit cards. No signs on my door, no indication on invoices. If the client asks, the answer is yes, but like many places, there is a minimum amount (and no, it’s not $20). For volume-type lawyers who charge small fees, credit cards are a great way to sign up clients and maintain a good cash flow. For those with bigger fees and smaller practices, it’s a last resort for that client that you believe may have an issue paying, or who just can’t come up with the retainer unless it’s charged on a credit card.

Visa and Mastercard rates are lower than AMEX, but in the end, you’re looking at getting about 96% of the fee once the percentage and transaction fees are paid. If you can’t survive on that, I can’t help you.

What about house calls?

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Partners love to emphasize to candidates who are interviewing that their firm provides not only “early responsibility,” but also abundant “client contact.” Associates who interview eat that stuff up. “Client contact” sounds like the epitome of what being a lawyer is all about.

But sometimes client contact might not be all it’s cracked up to be. For an associate, talking to a client often has little short term upside and lots of potential downside. If you give good advice, the partner is likely to take the credit for it. If you give bad advice, you better believe you will take the blame.

Once an attorney is blessed with significant client contact, they learn rather quickly that the much-vaunted experience can be rather overrated. More times than not, a ringing phone does not a happy lawyer make. Just consider some of the reasons why clients are likely to be calling….

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