Client Issues

Lawyers like to say, “I’m a lawyer, not a psychiatrist.”

If you’re dealing with people’s problems, you’re a lawyer and a psychiatrist. While clients understand you are the person hired to try and resolve their legal issues, the not-so subtle secret of a successful practice is a slew of clients that believe their lawyer actually gives a crap about how their legal issues are affecting their personal life.

In small-firm practice, you’re dealing with someone who just got served, or is going through the anxiety of deciding whether to initiate litigation. Your client may be going through the stress of trying to buy a business, or asking you to split up his family. Someone is trying to get her spouse out of jail, while the person in jail is wondering about his future. The type of legal issues that we deal with in small law firms aren’t whether the corporation will have to pay a million dollar fine or whether the bank will have to write off a loan, they’re issues that cause people to lose sleep and sometimes just freak out.

And I know, I get the calls too. Clients want to talk about things that have nothing to do with the legal work I have to do. They ask the same questions that you can’t answer: “When will this be over?” or, “Do you think (this) will happen?” You’re tired of telling the client, “I don’t know, but just be patient.” The client calls and says he “read” this, or “heard” this,” or worse, “My friend had a case like this and…”

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Conflict checks. A necessary evil in today’s incestous Biglaw, where every partner is a potential lateral, and client loyalty is fickle. Biglaw’s insurance companies demand them, so every firm goes through the motions — at sizable expense, given the size of your typical firm’s “Intake” or “Risk Management” department. Conflicts themselves are an old story, of course. Everyone would be a rainmaker, but for them. Blaming a lack of performance on conflicts is a time-honored Biglaw tradition. But who cares about excuses.

Let’s talk opportunities. There is plenty of information an enterprising Biglaw partner (or partner-aspirant) can glean from the firm’s hourly-daily-weekly conflicts report. Free information, as in not requiring the expenditure of political capital to obtain. (Practice tip: every Biglaw interaction is political in nature. At least you should treat them that way.)

Back to conflict reports. For many, they are simply another email to be skimmed and dragged into “Deleted Items” with all dispatch. A good percentage of Biglaw attorneys probably ignore them outright. That is a mistake. Why ignore a potentially valuable resource and real-time look into the health of your firm? Especially when your other option is to wait for the firm’s executive committee to update you on the firm’s performance — usually using financial metrics that present their own “management” abilities in the best possible light. Associates and other non-partners are not even usually dignified with any such information — but everyone gets a peek at the conflict check.

So what can we learn from conflict reports?

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A plumber once told me, “There’s price, quality, and service — I can only give two. Pick which ones you want.”

In the service business there are those that focus on beating the competition the easy way — price. Quality and service are often assumed by unknowing clients who believe that a $500 lawyer is going to offer the quality and service of the $5,000 lawyer (sometimes that’s true). You find out your “competition” quoted a flat fee of $10,000 for the representation, so you’ll do it for $7,500.00. You’ve determined the client is only hiring on price, and you’re good at price. You would never think to tell the client that your fee is $15,000.00. You don’t feel confident in your quality or service, nor that the client cares. You’re just trying to compete at the lowest common denominator.

Focusing on the competition is a waste of time. I see it over and over again. A group of lawyers start a niche and there is a standard fee no matter who you hire. Then some young broke stud jumps in and charges $20 less. A few years later, everyone is charging 60 percent less. No one is making money, except those that aren’t focused on the competition….

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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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At the end of last month, various legal media began buzzing about a new legal technology start-up on the block: LawZam! The company (which doesn’t really have an exclamation point, but I can’t say the name without yelling like Champ from Anchorman) offers free video conferencing services for prospective clients looking for representation; more specifically, it purports to be something akin to “speed-dating for attorneys.”

An new editorial published today touts the benefits of services like this, and shopping “online in the lawyer district” more generally.

Now, I have to say, I’m a little cynical here. And I’m afraid even touching this subject will inspire Brian Tannebaum to fly across the country, come to my house, and stab me in the eye with a letter opener. But let’s look a little closer and get your opinions in a reader poll….

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Courtney Love is many things to many people. Succubus, Golden Globe-nominated actress, rockstar in her own right, subject of several awesome post-grunge rock songs, and now serial defendant.

As we previously mentioned in Non-Sequiturs, Love is being sued by litany of her former associates. Her former legal consigliere says he was not properly paid, and now her former personal assistant says Love asked her to act illegally and hire a hacker.

What, what? Say it ain’t so, C. Love!

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There is nothing more important to lawyers than time. Time spent on cases (especially if you’re in trying to win the “most billable hours” contest award at your funeral), time in the day to “do everything,” time to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Everything comes down to time. The reason you don’t do certain things is because you claim to “have no time.”

Lawyers base their entire lives on time. Many try to figure out the latest time when they can roll out of bed to be on time to the office or court. We live on deadlines. We appear in court when told, file documents on certain dates (or fax them on certain dates at 4:59), and we set appointments for things. There are other things we want to do -– other things we need to do, but we use the excuse of “no time” as a crutch.

Truth is, we have plenty of time, we just don’t use it well. We let our practices control us, instead of trying to control our practices. Clients and cases will run lives, if you let them. Some lawyers believe the essence of being a lawyer is letting clients run their lives, we must let clients know we are available 24/7.

You can call me 24/7, but I’m no longer answering the phone when I’m doing something I consider more important than making money…

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