Clients

If you’re trying to build a word-of-mouth-based referral practice (is anyone doing that anymore?), you may be frustrated with two things about some of your referral sources: they don’t appear to know what it is you do, and they don’t make a real effort to get you the case/client.

Let’s talk about the bad referrals first.

We’ve all been there. The call comes in, the client was referred by a familiar name, and he wants to hire you to do something you don’t do or don’t want to do. Maybe you’re a divorce lawyer but don’t want to handle child custody modifications, or you’re a commercial litigator who has said many times that you don’t do collections work.

If you’re getting the wrong referrals, it’s your fault…

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It’s not part of a legal strategy or way to churn the file; it’s an attorney-initiated discussion about the client smack in the middle of the case.

What usually happens is that the attorney is retained, legal work begins, the client is updated as to the status of the case/matter, asked to weigh in occasionally on strategy, and reminded about the pending bill. We see this as part of the job, but how do the clients perceive the representation?

At some point in the representation, the best chance you have to hear what the client is really thinking is when they are not happy. You’ll get that anxious phone call, that question that is really a criticism, and it is during those times that you focus on trying to make the client happy.

What if you were proactive?

What if you scheduled a non-billable meeting with the client, outside your office, for the sole purpose of allowing the client to voice their overall concerns after you’ve been representing them for a while?

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Lawyers often let themselves be abused by clients. After all, the clients pay the fees, and because they pay the fees, they are entitled to behave how they want. Part of being a lawyer is learning that you have to accept clients who treat you and your staff like garbage.

And I’ve never understood that.

Sure, lawyers have clients that are emotional, anxious, demanding, time consuming, or confused, but our job is to try and use the “counselor” part of “attorney and counselor at law,” and help them through the journey as best as possible. Why that has to mean we just take their crap to no end is a ridiculous notion.

Small-firm lawyers are more often the recipients of abusive clients. The fees are usually being paid by an individual or small company instead of by some insurance company in another state. Instead of dealing with a legal issue that affects a whole company, it’s often someone’s marriage, injury, arrest, or contract dispute — something personal. The client has more of a one-on-one relationship with a lawyer and sees that lawyer as the reason for success, and failure.

The reason lawyers think state bars go after small-firm lawyers more than Biglaw lawyers is simple — there are more of us, and Biglaw clients usually (but not always) don’t see the bar disciplinary process as a worthy forum for their issues.

So we get threatened more, asked for fees back more, and often feel under siege by bad clients….

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“Fewer clients.” This is the ideal that began the story of the transformation of Jerry Maguire.

Haven’t seen the movie? Watch it. Absorb it. It’s a great premise by which to build your practice.

Now that January is over, an invaluable piece of paper walked in to my office. In prior years, I attempted to mentally keep track of who called me and who hired me, but I wound up forgetting a lot of the details. This year I’ve made some changes. On a monthly basis, I’m reviewing prospective clients who called, as well as who referred them, who took their calls, their case types, and whether I was retained.

The percentage of calls-to-retained used to be “most.” Most potential clients that came to my office retained me. I made it easy. I’d bring them in, spend some free time, smile a lot, negotiate the fee, and get the case.

Now that percentage has gone down, way down.…

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Tom Wallerstein

A general counsel recently asked me, “Why should my company risk hiring a lesser-known, small firm?”

I told him that it shouldn’t. I don’t think any company should unnecessarily “risk” its business without good reason. I’ll be the first to admit that there are some matters that simply demand big firm attention.

But I also told the GC that there were many matters that I thought my smaller firm could handle just as well as could a big firm, and with cost savings that would be relatively significant given the amount at stake.

I wouldn’t ask someone to hire me if I thought that doing so was risky for them. A client should not have to choose to lose or win; it needs to make sure the small-firm attorneys have the necessary skill and experience. But with that caveat, some matters are particularly well suited for boutique treatment.

Assuming a client can afford to hire a Biglaw firm for a particular matter, why might it consider a small firm or boutique — beyond the obvious lower cost?

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So the matter/case (whatever you call it) is over. You’ve resolved the contract dispute, formed the corporate entity, ended the marriage, had the criminal case dismissed, resolved whatever the client’s issue was for which you were retained.

You’ve taken my advice and narrowly defined the scope of representation in your written, signed, retainer agreement. Now what?

Your guess is that you send a nice letter advising the client that you’re done here, thanking them for retaining you, and possibly reminding them that there’s a balance due.

Not a bad idea.

Not the best idea, but not a bad idea.

I suggest that the end of your representation is where you give the free consultation, instead of at the beginning.

Time for a face to face meeting with the client, to continue the relationship. Time to ask: “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

I’m terrible at this. I rarely do it. I generally say goodbye to the client in court, or with a phone call and tell them to “take care.” I may say, “Call me if you need anything,” but I don’t often take the extra step to continue the client relationship. Many times the relationship is already established through the representation, so I don’t feel the need for the face to face “exit interview,” but I’m missing out on an opportunity, and I know that….

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Oh, you’re all running here now. You saw the title. Here you come. Click click click. It’s all you want to know. And by you, I mean those who claim to love Biglaw, but would jump to your own place or a smaller firm in a second if you “could make the same money.”

I know.

I know when you call me, when you come to my office to discuss the “possibility of leaving,” that it’s the only thing on your mind. Sure, you want your name on the door, more freedom, more client contact. But you just have one real question. One real fear. One real concern. One thing you need to convince your better half of before you make “the jump.”

Can I make the same money?

Here’s the answer….

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Tom Wallerstein

When I started my firm, several mentors gave me the same advice: Don’t work for free. It’s easy to see the problem with working for free. Giving away what you’re trying to sell isn’t exactly in the business plan. Unfortunately, this sage advice can only really be learned the hard way, through experience.

Working for free can arise in many different ways. The most obvious example is a client who wants you to represent him but can only promise to pay you later.

Even if your gut tells you that taking on that client is a bad idea, this can be surprisingly tempting to a new firm or solo practice. For starters, there is such a thrill with getting your first client, or your first “real” client, or your first big client, or your first whatever client, that the excitement can cloud your better judgment. You will be tempted to overlook the red flags that you will not be paid for your work….

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It’s been a week of violence here at Above the Law. Between the murder-suicide guy and the judge who beat his disabled daughter, there’s been too much disturbing sadness.

Here at Above the Law, we prefer violence that is maybe, just a little, funny. For those who appreciate the lighter side of crime, we’ve got Joshua Monson. Here’s a guy who has stabbed his way out of his right to an attorney.

How do you lose this fundamental right to representation? Well, by stabbing all of your representation….

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