Reach Out And Make A Connection
Arnie Herz at Legal Sanity offers a great tip, echoed by What About Clients: reconnect with your business network so that you can continue to nurture and reinforce the trusted relationships that produce not only business referrals, but personal fulfillment. Taking a page from Curt Rosengren, Herz recommends that you try speaking with someone personally whom you know via email or the Internet, but haven't actually spoken with. Why don't you give it try?
Real Life Marketing and Client Service Lessons, Courtesy of Jet Blue
Even after practicing law for 18 years, underneath my general air of confidence and my excess precaution with much of what I do lies a deep fear that at any minute, I could screw up in a major, big time way. But now, courtesy of Jet Blue, there's a lesson from the school of real life marketing on how to you can begin to deal with the fallout from those inevitable gaffes (or not).
This article, Jet Blue's Survival School offers a run down on some of whatJet Blue's done right since everything went so terribly wrong with its Valentines' Day Meltdown. Most significantly, Jet Blue's CEO, David Neeleman has stepped up to the plate to take responsibility and apologize:
But rather than hide behind his desk and speak through a flunky, Neeleman stepped up. He assessed the situation early on and spoke to the press. He explained exactly what went wrong and apologized. He said he felt "mortified" and "humiliated." That culminated Tuesday when he appeared on CNN's American Morning, Today, Fox and Friends and Squawk Box before most people arrived at work. He's been so visible, appearing live on so many media outlets, that it's a quasi-miracle he's been able to traverse New York City traffic to make the appointments.
I've read that good bedside matter often spares doctors, and other professionals from malpractice. So Neeleman's apology, as well as the compensation (free flights and refunds) and a Passenger Bill of Rights put him on the right track to making amends. Still, Jet Blue's efforts may not suffice to win back the affections of customers such as the one who started the blog, Jet Blue Hostage and has collected at least 150 stories from other passengers seriously inconvenienced by Jet Blue.
At this point, it's not clear whether Jet Blue can avert a class action lawsuit, along the lines of this type of false imprisonment and breach of contract action filed against Northwest in 1999. And sadly, that's part of the lesson here as well. Sometimes, no matter how much good will you build (as Jet Blue did), one huge screw up can spoil your your reputation until you can find a way to rebuild trust.
For lawyers, we need to continue plugging away at good customer service, both because it's the right thing to do, but also as a prophylactic against the adverse consequences of screwing up. And when good customer service doesn't cut it, we have malpractice insurance to fall back on.
Lawyers as the Bearers of Bad News
The recent shootings at a Chicago law firm by Joe Jackson, a disgruntled and crazed client have spawned a search for reasons behind the tragedy. This article, Lawyers balance inventors' hope (12/17/06) explores one rationale: that Jackson, like other inventors who seek patents, hold an unrealistic hope of success. According to one patent attorney quoted in the article, "probably less than one in 100" will ever make money on an invention. As the article describes:
Attorneys tread a fine line between being upfront with clients and killing their dreams. "If everyone took a negative attitude, if they said, 'It's too hard, or it will take too long,' then where would our society be?" said Paul Juettner, another patent attorney. "Then Thomas Edison wouldn't have done the things he did -- or the Wright brothers."
In patent law, as in other fields, attorneys must act as the bearers of bad news, the ones who put a damper on expectations. It's probably one of the worst parts of being an attorney, but if we don't occasionally tell our clients "no," or at least ask them to consider a variety of different options, who will?
The Limits of Managing Client Relationships
More lawyers are focusing on managing client relations, adopting techniques from putting ourselves in our clients' shoes to soliciting feedback through surveys to treating them with respect. But sometimes, no matter what we do, clients get frustrated and angry - often not with their lawyers but with the inherent limitations of our justice system - and this kind of tragedy results.
Twelve Rules of Great Client Service
Though Dan's post addresses client service, it's actually a great model for great rules for serving your blog readers. Many readers may be new to your site and may not have read some of your best top posts. So why not, like Dan has, repackage them as a "greatest hits" album of a sort and put it out for your readers. You'll give them a taste of the best that your blog has to offer, and at least for one post, you won't have to search for new material!
Client Service and More on Niches
I realize that my posts have been sparse over the past month. The slow postings are explained by a couple of factors: my day job as a practicing solo has been fairly busy lately, a project that I'm close to finishing that I believe will greatly benefit MyShingle readers and my divided loyalties now that I'm blogging with Bob Ambrogi at Legal Blog Watch (I'm also on a partial vacation at the beach right now)
So, even though I'm not able to write a stand alone post, let me refer you to recent Legal Blogwatch posts of interest to MyShingle readers. First, if you want to learn more about the importance of client service and how to integrate client service into your practice, take a look at this post, Serve Your Legal Career by Serving Your Clients. And for more on ways that finding a niche can help build your practice (which I've posted on previously here and here), see my post on Advice for Law Firms Who Want to Be Something to Everybody.
I'll be back with more regular postings by the end of the month for sure. In the meantime, I welcome guest posts from other solos about your experience, advice you want to share - or from other lawyers about your perception of solo and small firm lawyers. Just drop me an email at email@example.com.
How to politely decline...and avoid a lawsuit
Recently, Allison Shields posted here on the benefits that lawyers can gain from hospitality, which is what excellent client service is all about. But this article Thou Shalt Not... by Steven Lubet (American Lawyer, 7/2006) got me to thinking that hospitality and just plain courtesy have other benefits as well: they can spare you from a lawsuit or ethics complaint.
At first blush, Lubet's article, about a lawsuit alleging First Amendment violations by a disgruntled client spurned by a law school clinic seems to hold little advice for private lawyers running a practice. Here's what happened. The North Dakota law school runs a state funded legal clinic that handles civil rights matters. In 2003, the clinic challenged a public display of the Ten Commandments. In 2003 the legal clinic's Civil Rights Project represented five members of the Red River Freethinkers in a challenge to the placement of a Ten Commandments monument standing outside the city hall in Fargo, North Dakota. When Martin Wishnatsky, an anti-abortion activist learned about the litigation, he wrote a letter to the editor, criticizing the litigation as attacking the faith of millions and an inappropriate use of state funds.
To get back at the clinic, in 2005, Wishnatsky wrote to Professor Rover, seeking help in developing a lawsuit against "Grand Forks County and other relevant parties for having a statue of the Greek goddess Themis on top of the Grand Forks County Courthouse." Themis is the well-known figure of a blindfolded, toga-clad woman holding the scales of justice. Wishnatsky explained: "as a Christian, I find such representations of pagan religious figures in public places very disturbing," and indeed, "I feel like a second-class citizen when subject to such governmental displays." He requested the clinic's assistance "on the same basis as that granted to the [plaintiffs] to bring suit against the city of Fargo over the Ten Commandments monument."
As Lubet describes, there are legitimate questions regarding Wishatsky's claims, such that Rovner would have been fully justified in declining his case. But rather than simply decline politely, Rover did the following:
She sent Wishnatsky a letter informing him that due to limited resources, the Civil Rights Project was "unable to accept any new cases at this time." That probably would have ended the ironic pas de deux, but Rovner evidently could not resist going further. Even if they had sufficient resources, she continued, "our independent professional judgment is that your persistent and antagonistic actions . . . would adversely affect our ability to establish an effective attorney-client relationship with you and would consequently impair our ability to [represent] you." Thus, she concluded, "our ethical obligations . . . prohibit us" from accepting the case.
At that point, Wishnatsky sued arguing that she had declined his case based on his public criticism of the clinic and its role in the Ten Commandments case. The lower court dismissed it, but Wishnatsky, with the aid of prevailed at the Eighth Circuit:
According to the appellate court, the clinic's argument amounted to a claim "that it may exclude persons from the program solely on the basis of their viewpoint [emphasis in original]." Taken to its logical conclusion, the court observed, that position would allow the publicly funded program to "accept as clients only persons who belong to one political party." (the case has since been remanded and is pending in District Court)
Whether you agree with the Eighth Circuit or not, none of this would have happened if Rovner had acted courteously. Instead of calling Wishnatsky on his "antagonistic conduct," she should have simply declined to take the case but advised Wishnatsky to seek other counsel if he remained interested in bringing the case. She could even have provided a number for the bar referral office.
When you go to someone's home and you're served something you don't enjoy, you don't criticize the food to the host. Instead, you politely make excuse, that you're too full to eat any more. And when you turn down a client, you do so with the same courtesy. The client may have been a jerk when he came to your office, he may have unreasonable expectations of the case or seem like a cheapskate. Don't put that in the letter. Simply say that you do not believe that you can be of assistance and direct the client to seek out another attorney.
Lubet says that Rovner should have had her students investigate Wishnatsky's case; then she could legitimately reject the case because of lack of merit rather than distaste for the client. That solution may be appropriate for a law school where students can research matters for free, but it does not always work in a law practice. Lawyers have the right to turn down clients for any reason, ranging from lack of confidence in the strength of the case to vibes about whether the client will prove difficult. But when you turn down clients, treat them with respect and courtesy. If you can't act courteously because it's the right thing to do, then at least do it to avoid facing a spurned client's wrath - and possible grievance or lawsuit - if you don't.
The Paradox of Client Service
There are a number of blogs like Dan Hull's What About Clients? and In Search of Perfect Client Service that provide excellent advice on how to serve clients. At the same time, for some lawyers, particularly new solos, serving clients isn't as much of a problem as figuring out how to avoid falling into what I have termed "the paradox of client service," the fact that we serve clients, but they are not our masters. In the early years of my practice, I felt this tension between feeling like I'm a slave to my client while trying to stay in charge. Originally, I chalked it up to a my personality, but now I wonder whether many new lawyers are predisposed to becoming slaves to clients because that's the role we play in law school (performing on command to the Socratic method) and at firms. Anyway, here are my thoughts below:
Perhaps the most difficult transition from working for others to working for yourself involves figuring out how to deal with the “paradox of the client.” At a job, clear rules of hierarchy apply: you take your marching orders from your boss or superior, be it a senior partner at a firm or a deputy general counsel at a government agency or corporation. As for dealing with clients, they’re just another task on your to-do list, along with researching memos or keeping time sheets or taking CLE courses (continuing legal education).
Starting your own firm upsets this orderly chain of command. In solo practice, dealing with clients is no longer someone else’s responsibility. Clients comprise the heart of your business, your firm’s raison d’etre. Your livelihood depends upon your ability to serve your clients, because without them, you won’t have a law firm. At the same time, serving clients does not make them your boss. The partner at the law firm could force you to work round the clock or to raise a specious argument in a brief against your better judgment, but clients do not control the way you run your practice. As we discuss, clients have important rights that you must respect as part of your service to them, but those rights do not include things like keeping you at their beck and call round the clock or ordering you to discount your services or forcing you to take a position that violates ethics rules.
That is the paradox of the client: you serve clients, but they are not your master. If you don’t serve well, you may lose your clients, but if you subordinate your judgment and business practices to your clients’ demands, (e.g, working for discounted rates or taking unethical positions), you may also find yourself the subject of a bar complaint or out of business. All lawyers struggle with the paradox of the clients. But the paradox poses a particularly difficult problem for new solos: emerging from the cocoon of the “boss-employee” relationship, many new or young solos are more preconditioned to fall into a subordinate role with clients...
What are your thoughts? Is this a problem for new solos (as I wrote here, becoming a slave to a client can happen even when more experienced lawyers let friendship cloud their judgment) - and if so, what can we do, in law school and in law firm training to address it?
What GCs Don't Like About Their Lawyers
Even if you don't deal with corporate counsel as part of your law practice, this article, GCs Vent Their Frustrations About Outside Counsel (Recorder, 5/23/06) is worth reading, because it can help improve your relationship with any clients. The article lists what corporate counsel don't like about their outside counsel. Unpopular practices include (1) surprising clients with large bills; failing to call; raising rates (or not cutting back on costs) during economic downturns and sending a large document without some kind of summary. ermine the GC's position in the company.
Take a look at the article and think about whether you're guilty of some of these practices, and what you can do to change.
More On House Calls
Joining a previous and long ago post on housecalls is this piece, Swtiching to House Calls, Hope Viner Samborn (ABA Journal 5/2006). These days, house calls are viewed not just as convenient for clients but as a way to avoid having an office. From the article:
Solo practitioner Laura S. Petelle gives new meaning to the moniker in-house counsel—she always meets clients in their homes, businesses or public places. Petelle travels throughout a three-county area around Peoria, Ill. She sits in kitchens or living rooms with families, writing notes while discussing estate planning. Breaks are common for homework, after-school snacks and playing with dogs. And it’s common for her to be asked to stay for dinner. She is one of a new breed of solos who have abandoned a traditional office, instead traveling to clients wherever they may be. Cell phones and portable computers keep them in touch and make this practice model possible.
It's interesting how technology is allowing us to return to the traditional practices of our predecessors.