client relations

resume girlFor the first few years of my solo practice, I was a pure solo (also known as a “true solo”). This means that I had no associates nor support staff. I had a small number of clients with relatively simple matters, so I had no need for such luxuries. But later, I got a part-time assistant who handled the mail, deposited checks, and called a client from time to time. She is still with me today helping me close up my existing cases.

Solo practitioners and small partnerships seeking a lucrative practice will eventually have to hire employees, or at the very least, part-time contract workers, in order to expand. At some point, the grunt work becomes too burdensome for the solo to handle alone. The legal assistant or paralegal will handle the usual office paperwork and logistical client calls while the associate is in charge of smaller cases.

Some pure solos want the lucrative practice without the hassle and potential liability of employees. Today, I want to share some of the true solo business plans being thrown around — and why it’s hard to make them work….

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thumbs-upWe are living in a feedback culture. Traveled lately? Uber wants to know how your ride to the airport was. Your airline? An emailed survey is waiting for you on arrival at your destination. Checking out of your hotel? Have a goodbye survey on the house. Had a meal? Make sure you take the opportunity to complain (on Google, Yelp, etc.) about the server who accidentally brushed your shoulder while pouring your overpriced Malbec. Or rave about the innovative creme brulee and brioche hybrid that is the heir apparent to the cronut as a worthy “queue them up” for hours artery-clogger. It’s easy. Just a few clicks, and the world will be enlightened with your opinion. And your service provider can “improve the experience” for the legions of satisfied customers to follow.

In fact, service providers in multiple industries are quite busy turning your technological toys into “review generation machines” — because they can. Purchase an item online, and be prepared to answer questions about the item, the purchasing experience, and even the process of returning “crappier in real life than it looked on my Retina Display iMac/iPhone/iPad” item as well. While you are at it, maybe you have some thoughts on the packaging too. If so, the good folks who supply online retailers with corrugated cartons of all shapes and sizes would sure appreciate hearing about it.

There is no doubt that technology has fostered this “connectivity” between consumer and service provider in a quite mind-boggling way. And that those service providers are not shy about exploiting it. Many times, we do not even realize just how much our thinking has changed on this issue….

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Beyond BiglawThere are a lot of ways to measure success as an attorney. Many of the ways lawyers measure their own successes are backwards-looking. Whether focusing on past educational accomplishments or big deals or cases they have participated in, lawyers love to focus on what they have done.

There is nothing wrong with that, unless it prevents someone from focusing on what truly is important: the present. And for practicing lawyers, and those who intend to keep on practicing, there is only one question relating to the present that matters: “Who thinks of me as their lawyer?”

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Keith Lee

The first step in putting yourself out there is knowing what you are about. You absolutely need to be able to present who you are to people in a simple, cohesive fashion. Otherwise, it can be difficult to make connections with people.

If you are stumbling on who you are or what you do, people lose interest. You need to be able to simply, and quickly, tell a story about who you are. Something that communicates what you are about — as a person and as a professional. You need to be able to express your personal narrative.

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A few weeks into my new contract job, things got extremely busy. A few of the partners assigned additional work to me, and I see 12-hour days coming in the near future. And when I am done there, I have to go back home to work on my own client files. Unread letters and email are piling up on my desk, and it is getting harder to respond to phone calls quickly. I needed to do something to reduce the workload. And I sure as heck am not going to tell the partners that I’m too busy with my own work.

Over the weekend, as I was reviewing my notes and preparing billing statements to my clients, I decided that some of them had to go. Some were not paying their bills as agreed on the attorney-client contract and giving me all kinds of excuses. Others were slow in giving me information and documents that I needed. And others had malignant personalities that I couldn’t stand. Like most unestablished solo practitioners and small firms, I previously had no choice but to be flexible and exercise temperance in these situations. But now I am in a position to fire them.

After the jump, I will tell a story about a client I recently fired, the reasons why, and how I ended the relationship. I was worried because of the things he could possibly do to me: a bar complaint, a malpractice lawsuit, or a negative online review. But I felt particularly bad about this because he was one of my very first clients and one of my strongest cheerleaders….

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Star Trek, beads and wire, sculpture by Devorah Sperber, Spock, Kirk and McCoy: Beaming-In (In-Between), Microsoft, Studio D, Redmond, Washington, USA" by Wonderlane

From Star Trek — The Motion Picture:

Doctor McCoy: Spock, you haven’t changed a bit. You’re just as warm and sociable as ever.

Spock: Nor have you, Doctor, as your continued predilection for irrelevancy demonstrates.

Spock is a Vulcan. He gets away with living by “reason and logic with no interference from emotion,” but that’s because his extraterrestrial humanoid species gave “massive assistance to a devastated post–World War III Earth, enabling the planet to eliminate poverty, disease, and suffering within a single century.”

Lawyers, unless you can save planet Earth like the Vulcans did, don’t be so cocksure about the upside of being a 24/7, devoid-of-emotion, professional a-hole….

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Clients are in the driver’s seat these days. Lawyers, even partners at prestigious and profitable firms, must bow and scrape before in-house counsel to land engagements.

It won’t be long before beauty contests actually include, well, beauty contests. What rainmaker worth his or her salt wouldn’t strip down to a swimsuit if required to do so as a condition of being hired? (Assuming that seeing the lawyer in swimwear would actually appeal to the client, that is.)

Not long ago, some Biglaw partners had to humiliate themselves in order to land a major matter. What did they have to do for the deal?

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Keith Lee

One of the great, unspoken realities of being a new lawyer that is never mentioned in law school is that you are going to screw up – badly. And then you’re going to have to explain it to your client or supervising attorney.

You’re going to miss a deadline, not file an objection, miss some case law, or not contact an attorney involved in the case on a hearing. A mistake is going to be made and it will be your fault.

You may be tempted to try and shift the blame. Come up with excuses as to why something outside of your control caused the problem. That you were swamped with work and had too much on your plate. He said, she said. But if it was a task assigned to you, it is your personal responsibility to make sure it was completed on time and specification.

As the task, and subsequent mistake, are your responsibility – you must own it….

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After attending a “meet and greet” dinner put on by our primary outside counsel recently, I was inspired to reflect on that sometimes tricky relationship.

There needs to be trust, but there needs to be distance too. A client perspective after the jump, but I’ve been on both sides, and I think it goes both ways. To all you outside counsel: enjoy your freedoms….

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For Biglaw attorneys, it can take a while to realize the importance of face-to-face interaction in the business world. Especially for those young attorneys who start working at Biglaw firms immediately after graduating law school, and who attended law school immediately after college. In my case, I had a year of real “work experience” before starting law school, but in a very junior position.

So I was not involved, as I suspect most young people outside of tech startups are, in important business interactions. It is debatable whether someone’s experience seeking funding for an app that locates and arranges delivery of fresh donuts on a 24-hour basis counts as “real” business experience of value to lawyers. Nevertheless, many Biglaw attorneys land in their partner-discarded Aeron chair knock-off by jumping directly off the college-law school cliff of debt. And as a result have never attended an important business meeting before joining Biglaw. Ever….

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