Clients

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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* 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]

One of the main differences between small law firms and Biglaw is who hires the lawyer. While both receive calls from the actual individual (person) client, general counsel, or corporate representative, the consumer-type disciplines (personal injury, criminal, divorce, employment (plaintiff), and immigration) are usually smaller shops, and usually get the call from the actual person needing representation.

Most of the time this person has never hired a lawyer. So the conversation will be much different than the call from a general counsel who understands typical billing formats, or an insurance company agent, who tells you what you’re going to bill and not bill.

I’m writing today for those who’ve been in small law firms for less than five years. The rest of you know the drill, you’ve heard the buzzwords and phrases, and (hopefully) you’ve taken control of your time in a way that shortcuts the worthless conversations from potential clients. From a business perspective, small law firm practice is an exercise in cash flow. While lines of credit are available, many small law firms don’t like to go that route. So every potential client is important, especially when you haven’t reached that stride where you can claim a “book of business.”

Saying “no” before the client makes it clear that it’s “no,” is tough. Did you just give up money? Was there another way to get the client “signed up?”

I draw lines. I am criticized for that, but it’s my practice and it’s worked for me. Normally when I don’t get the case these days, I hear about who got the case, which vindicates my choice to shortcut the conversation.

A recurring theme here is that what works for me may not work for you. OK. Did I ever indicate I give a crap?

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I rarely follow up on potential clients anymore. You want to hire me — you’ll let me know. I’m not playing your game of calling you back after the initial interview so you can tell me you’re “thinking about it,” but “the fee is really big.” Yeah, the fee is really big; so is your problem. You want to take your big problem to a bargain basement lawyer — knock yourself out. I don’t run a booth at the Straw Market in the Bahamas. If I’m going to negotiate, it’s going to be with opposing counsel, not you.

It’s killing you, though. You spoke with the client, they seemed interested, they asked all the right questions, and you gave all the right answers. They told you “money is no issue” (first clue they have no money.) It’s been a day or two, and nothing. No call, no email, and no questions about the retainer agreement you gave them.

What to do?

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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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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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