Client Relationships

Landing a corporate client is usually a happy time for any law firm, big or small. Now, the representation may not be a day in the park — after all, there are many, many ways for general counsel to drive outside counsel absolutely nuts. But even so, this kind of a client is another notch in your firm’s belt, no matter how difficult the relationship. Especially given today’s economy, this is a client that your firm will want to keep for as long as possible.

But regardless of everyone’s efforts, your firm just couldn’t seem to get it right. Your firm’s lawyers tried to placate the legal department’s every whim, to apparently no avail. Perhaps the proposed budget was a little too high. Perhaps an attorney from your firm was just a bit too snippy with in-house counsel. Whatever the case may have been, your firm got fired.

Why does this keep happening, and how can you make it stop?

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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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How to drive partners nuts. How to drive associates nuts. How to drive your boss nuts. How to drive clients nuts.

What’s left? Today’s topic: How to drive outside counsel nuts.

I’d say that I’ve been thinking long and hard about this subject to permit me to draft this column, but that wouldn’t be true. I’m a natural at this!

How do you drive outside counsel nuts?

First: Insist that outside counsel prepare a budget for every matter. Then complain that the budget is too high; tell counsel to reduce it. Complain that your business will never accept even the revised budget, and tell counsel to cut the estimate further. When you get the second revision, gin up some reason why even that’s too high, and have counsel cut the budget again.

Six months later, when counsel has blown through the budget, refuse to pay the bill! “You told me you could handle this case for damn near nothing. And now you want all this money? This is far more than what you budgeted. There’s no way we’re paying this!”

See? I told you that I was a natural. And I’m just getting warmed up . . . .

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Fair is fair is fair is fair: First, I analyzed what drives partners nuts. Next, I revealed what drives associates nuts. Third, I suggested how secretaries could drive their bosses nuts. Which (unless my imagination improves) leaves only today’s column: How to drive clients nuts!

How can you drive clients nuts? Let me count the ways.

First, remember that it’s really not the client’s case; it’s yours! The client retained you. You’re tending to the thing. If you win, you’re going to link to the decision from your on-line firm bio. So take the case and run with it!

When journalists call, answer their questions. (Make sure they spell your name, and your firm’s name, correctly in the published piece. Free publicity can’t hurt.) That silly little client surely trusts you to handle the press properly and, if the client doesn’t, the client’s wrong.

In fact, don’t limit yourself to handling the press. Figure out what an appropriate settlement should be, and then move the process along on your own. Call opposing counsel and tell her that you haven’t yet run this idea past your client, but you think the case should settle for 500 grand. Tell her you’ll recommend that amount if she’ll recommend that amount, and see what happens. The client will be pleased that you evaluated the case and sped the process without bothering the client at all. That’s both convenient and cost-effective: You’ll be a hero! (It’s quite unlikely the client was thinking more broadly than you are, considering the effect of settling this case on business issues, or other cases, or the like. After all, it’s your case. Don’t be a weenie; you handle it!)

Great! We’ve pushed the client one step closer to the brink of insanity. What else can we do to nudge the client over the edge?

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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….

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Ed. note: This is the second column in a series by Anonymous Partner focusing on the issues facing women in the legal profession. You can read the first column here.

Biglaw partners sell their time and attention to clients who want legal help. Partners devote plenty of thought and attention to the mechanics of selling — the how, the what, and even the why regarding client’s selection of counsel. Biglaw firms rightfully obsess about these issues, spending untold sums on robust marketing departments, consultants, and the like, in the hopes that their partners will magically all become rainmakers (or at least adept “cross-sellers”).

But while the how, what, and why of rainmaking get a lot of attention, there is a glaring lack of attention and discussion of the “who” — as in, who are the people making the decisions to purchase the gold-plated services offered by Biglaw. You would think determining the profiles of your target customers, and targeting sales approaches accordingly, would be an important endeavor for a professional-services outfit. You would also think that Biglaw firms would discuss with their current and future rainmakers strategies for appealing to various types of purchasers of Biglaw services. Neither of the Biglaw firms I have been a partner at have done so — at least when it comes to adopting different approaches to pitching female in-house counsel. I would bet my experience is typical.

What does this have to do with “Biglaw Lady Issues”? Easy. While the statistics tell us that women — in part because of the challenges posed by the timeline I discussed last week, among other factors — are not really moving the needle much in terms of becoming Biglaw equity partners, there is no doubt that they are entering Biglaw in substantial numbers, and leaving to take in-house positions — again in substantial numbers. As Old School Partner reminded us, Biglaw is within a lifetime of being a “men’s only” club. Those days are over, as are the days when someone like Old School Partner could build a firm of men selling to male-run businesses with exclusively-male in-house counsel. But nobody really talks about the impact that the increasing number of female in-house counsel do (and should) have on Biglaw marketing efforts and client retention. Seems crazy that this is the case….

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Tom Wallerstein

I’ve heard that a hungry dog hunts best. I don’t know if that’s actually true because my pugs were always hungry, and yet they could not have caught a three-legged turtle. But the saying makes sense, and I do know that staying hungry — but not desperate — is an important concept for law firms.

One way a young firm should stay hungry is to always search for new business. There are good reasons that I constantly harp on the importance of business development. Even if you are fortunate enough to be busy, you never know when your current workload may dry up. This is particularly true in litigation because any case can always settle or otherwise resolve unexpectedly. No matter how busy you are, you should constantly seek out new work and new clients.

But seeking out new work comes at a potential cost to your current cases and clients. You can’t be so desperate to grow that you spend so much time on business development that you ignore your current clients or let your current caseload suffer. Some lawyers take a churn and burn approach, trying to maximize their short-term return from every engagement, with no concern for the longer-term client relationship. To form a practice that’s built to last, you need to work hard to maintain those relationships, and that means you can’t neglect your current clients while constantly fishing for newer ones….

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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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* Will consultation with victims’ families determine whether James Holmes deserves the death penalty? You could probably consult with a wall to make that determination and get the same result. [PrawfsBlawg]

* Just like that, with incredible ninja-like speed, someone has already filed a negligence suit against the Aurora Century 16 Theater where the shootings took place. [Gawker]

* And no, sorry to disappoint you, but notwithstanding his self-admitted teeny peeny, we don’t think that James Holmes decided to go on a shooting spree because he got rejected by a few women on Adult Friend Finder. [Jezebel]

* While we’re talking about gun violence, Mike Bloomberg has got a great idea: all police officers should go on strike until legislators push through stricter gun laws. How is a nanny state supposed to work properly when all the governesses are off duty? [Gothamist]

* Knowledge is power in the hands of a client, especially when the knowledge you’ve given them is just another tool to piss off opposing counsel during a deposition. [Popehat]

* Personal responsibility fail: allowing your 13-year-old to drive you home because you’re wasted. Fathering fail: believing that was a good idea in the first place. [Legal Juice]

* A fake TV show starring a wheelchair-bound paraplegic paralegal? You know you’d watch this. [The Onion]

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