What to never say to clients, part 1

Below is the start of my long list of dumb things I have heard new associates and even a few experienced lawyers saying to their clients or their families. I could go on and on with a list that stretches for miles, folks. I’ll spare you all that laughter and heartache. After a while it would kind of get to be too much. No, what I’m doing here is distilling my private list of favorites that’s longer than the list Santa keeps into the top ten. If I start to get too mad while I’m typing I might have to stop early. Lets see how this goes and then I’ll take some Paxil and give you more later.

 1. “Calm Down.”

One of the dumbest things I have ever heard a newbie lawyer say to a client is “Calm down.” Either you say it with overwhelming force and have ten big friends to back you up or you try to be a little bit smarter. Your client is getting wound up about something that’s not your fault and you decided it was a good idea to be critical and order them around at the same time. Oh boy, that works with the wife every time I do it. Now they’re going to get angry and argumentative with you because you’re being b#*chy with them in the conference room. You’re triggering all those bad memories of when their spouses were jerks. I’m tired of going in there to break up pissy fights that never should have happened.

New lawyers never think to be smart and deal with these people like they’re intelligent human beings. Why don’t you try having them do something constructive instead of starting a fight? You redirect people who are acting like five-year olds. Hey, I have an idea for you. How about you say “OK, I understand what you’re saying. This is really important to get straight. Here, take this legal pad and start writing all this down so we’re ready for trial.”

Or here’s another one: “All right, lets both get on the phone right now and call everyone who will be a witness and see who will testify about this. Can you get out your contact list? I’ll get started.”

Was it that hard? None of our newbie lawyers has ever been tough enough to go head-to-head with an angry client. I would think my tip here would be a simple survival instinct.

2. “One of the partners will have to take this one.”

Oh, why, why, why? People come to this law firm because our marketing message says we’re smart and capable. That’s supposed to include you. Why do you have to destroy the image in their first meeting by making it seem like we’re chumps to hire an idiot who can’t figure out their problem?

I mean, imagine you’re a potential client. You have a difficult tax issue or a complicated property boundary dispute and the receptionist sets up a meeting for tomorrow at 3:00. You get to our office and the building looks really nice.  You parked next to my Lexus, even. The elevator ride is very formal, and you sit for a few minutes in our ultra modern waiting area. Our pretty 20-year old receptionist takes you into the ornate meeting room and then in walks one of our new associates. Right away you-as-the-client figures out the young attorney is there to screen your case so the big boss doesn’t waste too much time in the first meeting. Time is money, after all. So you start talking about your problem and the newbie lawyer is clearly not up to the task. They tell you they are going to have to pass the buck upstairs. They’re admitting confusion and defeat right to your face. We lose about half these clients because they’re worried the message won’t get passed along to somebody smart. Or, they’re worried we are incompetent because we were so dumb as to set up the first meeting between them and our town idiot.

You are expected to listen to their problem. Ask probing, intelligent questions to get the facts. Take notes. Don’t just draw dumb little pictures like you did in law school. Actually do something like a mature adult to connect to them as people. You can do that once a day, can’t you? I almost just asked you to at least fake it but you had better not try that one.  They sniff that out in a New York minute. At the end of the meeting you are to tell them that you will review everything with our team and you will get back to them. Don’t let them leave the building without setting an exact date and time for you to call them, preferably before lunch tomorrow.

Then as soon as they leave you run like hell to my office and give me everything so I can explain it all to you in simple terms that even you can understand.

3. “I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”

Oh my God, don’t ever let me catch you saying anything like this or I will scream at you so much that you will spend the next three years in therapy to try to come to grips with what happened.

Did you know the number one complaint about lawyers is that they never call their clients back? Why didn’t you know that? Every real person in the world knows this. Besides, saying “I’ll get back to you as soon as I can” is so completely wrong for three reasons:

  1. People know “as soon as I can” is how we say “never.” Try saying it in the mirror a few times when I can’t hear you for your own safety. You sound so insincere that it makes me sick to my stomach to think about it. Do you really want our clients to think we’re being fake and putting them off like we’re bar bimbos on dollar draft beer night?
  2. You have to build up and then continuously maintain trust with our clients. How can they feel like they can rely on us when they’re waiting forever to hear from you and they think they might never get another call? Good customer service means you have to carefully manage their expectations and nurture our relationship with them. Set an exact time for you to call them back. Grow up and start managing your calendar. Learn how to work with the secretaries or I will move your desk out into the hallway.
  3. Lastly, if you get in the habit of saying ‘as soon as I can’ you will eventually say it to a potential client with a crappy case who hasn’t paid us a retainer. You will forget about them because out of sight means out of mind for you. They, however, are not going to forget their meeting with you and that you said you would call them. They’re going to think you agreed to take on their case. I’ll get an angry call from them two days before their hearing and we’re going to have to do their work for free just so that we don’t sued or get a bar complaint for neglecting a matter entrusted to us. If I get a public reprimand because of a phone call you never got around to making, I will hide your body so well that it will never be found. You know I am not kidding.

How about you grow up and start taking charge of things like a lawyer? Tell them you have another matter to handle this afternoon but you want to meet with them again on Friday morning at 10:00 a.m. “to make some decisions.”

“Will that work?” you ask them. They’re going to say yes. Then you tell them that you’re going to go talk to the others in our tax group or the real estate group and you will personally present them with their options on Friday. If anything else comes up between now and then you say “can I call you at your work number?” Make sure you have the right one because you’re absolutely going to call them with a fairly simple question to start building a good relationship. You’re also going to start typing up a long follow-up letter as soon as they leave but I’ll get to that stuff later.

4. “Sure, we can take less as a retainer.”

There are three huge problems with this one and you better get these straight in your mind if you want to stay working here as our new associate.

First, our retainers are set to maintain our aurora of exclusiveness and competence. When you drop the price of our retainer you are acknowledging that you think our firm isn’t worth what you originally asked for. Expensive wines are priced so high because many of them are good but also because folks want to think they’re buying something really special. We’re like that bottle of fine wine, buddy. I know you’re used to buying three-buck-chuck. You have to start thinking big, like one of us. Our customers want to buy the best they can. As soon as you start sounding insecure about our firm by talking like we’re holding a fire sale, we’re going to lose the top paying customers. Show pride in the value of your work and in our office. We start giving away deals and we’re on the downhill slide to becoming a cheap “Lawyers-R-Us” outfit.

The second problem is that you, and by extension, our firm, doesn’t want to work with some cheap huckster trying to nickel and dime us to death. They’re treating you like they think you’re selling junk in some Egyptian bazaar. If they say they want a discount on the cost of our work they’re actually saying they think we’re not so great. I don’t want to deal with jerks like that. Also, if we give in on the retainer up front these guys will think they’ve figured out we’re weak. It will never end. They are going to try to dispute our bills and avoid paying any way they can. Be firm on our retainer up front and these jerks are either going to pay enough for us to put up with them or they are going to go hassle someone else.

Lastly, you have to avoid these people because there’s something wrong with them. Here they are in our office facing a tough situation and they want to pay for half of the job. Either they’re: (a) insane which means we’re going to spend far too much time explaining the basics to them; (b) they’re in denial and they will never be happy about your work; or (c) they’re about to go bankrupt and we might have to give the fee back to the bankruptcy trustee.

Grow a pair and stick to the retainer I told you to tell them in the first place.

5. “One of my other clients said . . .”

I know you’re not stupid enough to reveal client confidences and secrets. If you were I wouldn’t even talk about it. You know exactly what I’d do.

No, this one is more about telling unprofessional stories about our other clients. It’s close to the line but without identifying info it’s probably impossible to get in trouble over it with the bar. It just makes us look like we’re cackling hens.

If you tell a funny story, the client is going home wondering if you are talking about them to the next client you see tomorrow. They’re going to call me to get their case reassigned to another attorney. They’re probably also going to post something nasty about you online.

If you tell a horror story about the other client losing everything, they’re going home wondering if you were trying to warn them about something. They’re going to be in my office tomorrow and complaining up a storm that I didn’t tell them the truth about their chances of winning from the start. I’m going to have to void their last bill for $1,800 to calm them down.

If you tell a sad story about losing a tough case, they’re going home to make appointments to see other lawyers in town. I’ll get a fax tomorrow from some other law firm asking for the file and making snide comments about how I can’t ride herd on you. We’re going to eat the bill and even have to shell out for making the copies.

So just sit there and do that active listener thing. It’s not hard. Don’t joke about politics either. Don’t joke about yourself. Be professional for just a little while and then you can go home and let it all out to your cat. That’s all that’s going to be there to greet you anyway if you have to do dumb stuff like talk about other people behind their backs at work.

6. “I can’t meet tomorrow. I don’t work on Tuesdays or Fridays.”

Do you know what you look like if you say that? You look like a temp. Like a part timer who doesn’t have the strength to work a real job like the rest of us. Their perception of lawyers is of a bunch of hard-as-nails fighters who are really going to take care of their case. They don’t want some relaxed part-time person pretending to work a few days a week “just to keep in the game.” They want you to take charge. Don’t make us look like we set them up with an amateur.

Plus, what are they going to do if they have an emergency and need to talk to you Tuesday morning? They know they’re going to have to pay me to read the file and then figure out what to do. I’m not working your cases for free, after all. They’re facing something really serious and it’s really disconcerting for them to think they may have to wait a day or so to talk to you or pay double to answer questions.

How about you just suck it up and arrange for a last-minute babysitter to be on call if necessary? Or line up a ride if you have to get in the office. Better yet, could you set up a folding card table and pay $20 a month for a home land line that is only for work? Put it in the extra bedroom upstairs so you can lock the door and talk privately. Tell the secretaries that you’re working from home those days and give them your phone number so they can forward the calls from their system. You can use your cell phone but if you do that clients will call you night and day. Some are even going to drunk dial you. It’s hard to screen out calls that don’t have a caller ID name on the screen. An old-fashioned land line is easier to control. You just hit the mute button after 6:00 p.m. and the calls go right to your professional voicemail box. If that sound too difficult, then you can just unplug the damn thing at night.

Later you can tell the clients well in advance if you’re not going to work a couple of Fridays so you can go to your kids’ swim lessons. Wait to tell them until after you have established a professional relationship based on trust and competence.

7. “No problem, I’m not busy for the rest of the week.”

I don’t even know how to start here. Did I really just hear you tell the client we don’t have enough work for you? Like we’re screwup lawyers who can’t bring in clients for you to talk to?

Either you’re lying to the person, which is bad enough, or you’re working at a lousy law firm that doesn’t have any work. Both are extremely bad ideas for you to be throwing around, career wise. You are busy whether you know it or not. Besides, Murphy’s Law says that if you don’t go check your calendar with your secretary before committing to something then she will have already scheduled you to be in court.  I will pee on your car’s front seat if I have to cancel another tee time to work a hearing for you.

You know what, I can’t even keep going on this one. I keep a pitching wedge and a putter in my office to do a little practice at lunch. If I hear you saying this one again I’ll use both of them on you. You call them back and tell them you made a mistake and your secretary reminded you about your calendar. Then you will say “Can we set an appointment for 11:15 on Thursday?”

8. “No problem.”

OK, I know this one is pretty common for people to say so I’m going to take a deep breath and explain my problem here in a calm tone of voice, you little shit.

There are always problems. These people are here because they have problems. Most of the time they only spot one or two of their problems and we have to point out the other ones before they lose their house. Everything is a problem, including you right now. Why would you tell them “no problem” when there are literally ten or twenty problems all around you? And not just in their current file, either. They are a walking problem and their lives are going to get screwed up because you’re telling them “no problem.” Don’t try to shine them on and tell them something that not even you believe. It just puts off the discussion of their serious problems for me to deal with. We’re paying you to take care of simple things like this. Pull yourself together and learn how to tell them “OK, I’ve been working hard on this and I have to tell you about the risks here…” Document the hell out of that conversation so I don’t have to deal with your problems later.

And here’s another little gem for you. Problems are opportunities for us to bill more money. Why would you try to suggest something isn’t a problem? Problems are good for you. We have to pay you so you can make your monthly student loan payments on the $90,000 you overspent at that fancy law school. You start finding problems to work on and bill to our clients, guy, or we will find someone who will.

.

I can’t type up any more of these today. I’m getting a serious case of heartburn and my shoulder is hurting.

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Author: Samuel Owen

This is my Lawyer Rant. I've put up with new associates trying to kill me, clients being dangerous idiots, and Judges being rude for far too long. It's time for me to tell it like it really is, and it feels good to give back.

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