What to never say to clients, part 2

I think you got the idea from the first part of this list that there are just some things you just don’t say to clients. Some of them should be obvious but unfortunately they are not. I don’t mind beating these corrections into you, but please just read my lists so I can bill some hours instead of deal with your lack of business sense.

Now I know the reasons you don’t say things like “No problem” are fairly high-level and require an understanding of how law firms work, not to mention the concept of billing clients to death. So, to keep the list going and to help educate all the newbies flooding the job market right about now, I offer you the next list of things I don’t want to hear you saying. All you have to do is memorize the stuff in bold.

9. “Let me try to do that…”

Let’s get this one clear right up front. You don’t try to do anything. You actually do it. No actually you are going to tell them that you are going to do it and exactly when you’re going to call them and let them know it is done, then you are going to do it. If you’re not sure if it’s humanly possible your only option is to go get me to join you with the client as we plan how we all are going to accomplish what they want. You will never try to do anything, got it? I’ll figure out what’s going on and we will come up with a way that involves a lot of billable hours and their explicit consent to bill the heck out of them.

If you use the word “try” you’re making it sound like you don’t know for certain if you can pull it off. You sound like a dope on a rope that has never done this before but will give it the ‘ole college try. That kind of weakness kills their confidence in you, in me, and in the firm. If you can’t fake the certainty thing, maybe talk to your doctor about some medication or something.

10. “Sorry, we don’t do that”

Are you kidding me? You actually think it’s a good idea to turn away business? Maybe we should turn you away and get somebody who knows how to bring in money. I mean, it’s just not a good idea to tell a paying customer that we can’t do something. Maybe you can’t, but I’ll find someone who can.

I mean, really. Get as much information from them about the issue that’s confusing to you and then come talk to me because there are two possibilities for us here as long as you don’t scare the client away:

  1. If we arrange for them to go see a really competent lawyer in another firm we’re going to impress the client. They’re going to think we’re smart because we know smart people and that we’re looking out for them. Also, we’re going to get a return favor from that other lawyer which means a paying customer at some time in the future. Ah, I see that light bulb come on over your head.
  1. If we decide to work on it in-house you’re going to get a chance to do some research and bill some of those 2,300 hours I expect you to turn in each year. You do want to make your quota, don’t you? Well start figuring out how to do it and stop turning down work.

If we chose to do number 2 above, couldn’t you use their money to pay for you to become an expert in something the firm doesn’t normally do? You could actually make yourself valuable around here. I realize that sounds like a lot of work and you would prefer to just sit back and have people hand you money for free. However, that doesn’t work for me and if you keep this up you won’t either.

11. “Let me know if you have any other problems.”

This one is so closely related to the “no problem” thing I wrote about last time that either: (a) You have already forgotten how infuriated I was when I heard you say “no problem” last time; or (b) you have some devious plan to convince them there isn’t a problem so they don’t go hire some other firm and then surprise them with a solution or do something equally dumb. I have to take some more meds before I can explain why you will never say this one.

Our clients have lots of problems, which is why they come to us. If they didn’t have problems all the time, they wouldn’t need you or me. Well, at least not you, which I’m seriously considering. Of course they’re going to have more problems. It’s your job to hold their hand and be the smart person in the room taking care of their problems. You’re going to figure out their problems before they do so that they don’t go broke and get sued. You’re going to think ten steps ahead of them and they are going to pay me a lot of money for you to do it.

Don’t expect them to call you “if they have any other problems.” You pick up the freaking phone and take charge like somebody who knows what they are doing. You follow-up to make sure they filed stuff. You follow-up to make sure they paid stuff so they don’t get sued. When you do that one you make it clear you’re not billing them for the reminder phone call. You follow-up on their business or their lives so that they don’t have to worry. You create a solid bond with them based on trust so that they pay us when you spot their next problem. You nurture that bond so that they hire us the next time they get sued, which I promise will be coming soon, because it always does. You don’t get to sit back in your fancy chair and wait for things to drift your way.

12. ‘There’s nothing I can do’

Every time I hear this one I feel like that guy on Seinfeld whose psychologist taught him to go to that happy place by saying “Serenity now! Serenity now!” Well I need some of that or I’m going to have a stroke when I hear this one.

When you say “there’s nothing I can do” they realize you’re an oaf with no brains. Of course there is something you can do. Be creative and problem solve. Whole industries of management consultants charge tons of money to put on long, boring seminars about how to be a problem solver. We may not always be super effective and occasionally we lose hearings but there will always be something you can legally do for money.

We pay you to do good things for these clients. If you can’t figure out what to do, you spend a half hour with them to get as much information as possible. Then you apply that little brain of yours to their situation and come up with a plan. It better be the best thing you can think up. You make sure I approve it before you run it by the clients because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had new lawyers come up with stupid plans to do something illegal or crazy or worse. I’m not sending the investigators out to do some wiretaps or stalk someone. Also, from now on never suggest that you’re going out to do an undercover op with a turban and a fake accent. You were in kindergarten in the late 70’s when ABSCAM was going on so you probably don’t know that the FBI did it with a lot of teamwork. You’re not going to pull that one off on your own.

After I understand your plan I’ll do two things. First, I’ll give you some intelligent suggestions to counterbalance your near complete lack of insight and to make your plan workable. Then I’m going to give you a really big number that you’re going to have to remember to tell the client or I will choke you to death. If their problem sounds complex it’s going to be a truly big number. Otherwise it will be on the small side, say just $5,000. Its fine if they don’t pay the retainer right then and there. They will come back later if they really want their problem solved. Either way, there will be something we can do for enough money.

13. “No.”

I’m not getting into some cheap sales manager pep talk like ‘the customer is always right’ or something equally banal. We’re not a used car dealership, even though our associates wear the most hideous ties I have ever seen. I know that sometimes clients are flat wrong. I’ve had many of them ask me to go do things that were illegal like hide their money or destroy evidence and I’ve had to turn them down.

What I’m talking about with this one is something that’s a little above your pay grade so I’ll go slow. There are two issues here. Ready?

First, yes you can . . . for enough money. Everything we do here at this firm is about money. If you don’t feel like doing something, just ask for a lot of money up front as the retainer. Sometimes seeing all that cash changes your mind. You will also impress me with your bargaining skill which means you might stay here a little bit longer.

And another thing – many times I tell you to demand a retainer for us to get started on their divorce for $6,000. If they come back in a week and ask you do to something else like drive four hours to the far reaches of our beautiful state for their traffic hearing, you demand another retainer of, say, $4,000 paid up front. If they pay, great. You will get paid plenty for the misery of an eight-hour round trip and a dingy hotel in some hick joint in the middle of nowhere to lose some hearing for them. You can take a CD of one of those CLE programs we have to listen to and double bill for earning your annual credits. If they don’t pay, then it was their choice and they’re not mad at us.

Second, you don’t upset them by saying no. Find a way to explain why you can’t do it without getting us fired. Nicely walk them through the reasons why you can’t do it so they understand why you have to turn them down. By the time you get to the end you probably won’t have to tell them no. They’re already there and they drop the whole thing. For example, I had a guy ask me to go get the gun he used in a crime. He figured nobody had picked it up yet because it was hidden pretty well. I didn’t get all sanctimonious on him so that he goes and finds another lawyer. I started by explaining the statute on tampering with evidence and I told him there’s a huge risk I would get arrested and charged. I explained I would have to quit as his lawyer and maybe lose my job, and at that point he kind of laughed a little and we moved on. I didn’t have to get in his face with how stupid he was. He was paying me a lot of money and I wanted to keep billing him. All the decent criminals have the money to pay their lawyers, especially if they’re into drugs.

14. “I’m having such a bad day. My dog ran away, my car wouldn’t start, etc.”

Oh my God, clients don’t care about your problems and neither do I. You are supposed to be a professional in a very professional law office. Leave your problems at home and learn how to put on a happy face. And I mean every single morning whether you feel like it or not. Our clients want to pay you to deal with their bad day, not chit-chat about yours.

And another thing – they are not your friend. Don’t treat them like they are. As soon as they are your friend two bad things start to happen. First, you lose your professional perspective. You need that so you don’t do stupid things. Second, they know they can manipulate their friend into doing things for free like they do with all their other friends. They pay for your services. Don’t fall into the trap of becoming their special buddy.

All you should say to them is something like “Good morning. Did you get some coffee?” or “Good morning, good to see you again.” Then get working. The like to see their lawyer getting down to business and not wasting money. Speaking of that, why are you reading this and not back at your desk generating billable hours?

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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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