Monday, May 18, 2009

How to Lose a Client in 10 Days

"You Have Really Gotten Fat Since Our Last Meeting" I have this deal with my wife. For every Schwarzenegger-Steven Seagal masterpiece of film I have given her the privilege of experiencing, I am required to sit through the mindless romantic comedy of her choice. This weekend, I knew the consequences of my actions. I made my wife watch National Lampoon's Vacation as well as a ESPN Lumberjack competition where the contestants raced to see who could cut a large log the fastest. Not surprisingly, I soon found myself watching an episode of What Not to Wear followed by How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, a romantic comedy starring Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey. (Editor's Note: Although I fell asleep before the end, I am pretty sure they ended up together living happily ever after. Hope I didn't ruin the ending for you.) I learned two things from my wife's viewing choices: (1) I am no longer allowed to purchase clothes for myself. (2) The destructive relationship games men and women play (not returning calls, etc) can have a similar negative effect on the relationship with your client. From personal experience, I can tell you that, like girlfriends, clients will only take so much before they eventually dump you for another guy with a nicer car. Next thing you know, you're making a mix tape of 80s love ballads in a pathetic attempt to win your client back. In order to avoid such heartache, I humbly offer the following advice. 1. Don't Discount Their Feelings. Perhaps the biggest source of problems between attorneys and clients is lack of communication. This can be a problem with attorneys that have been in practice for several years. When the job becomes routine, we often forget the anxiety our clients may be feeling about their particular case. Even a minor speeding ticket can be a major life event if it happens to be your client's first brush with the law. A common real estate closing is often the biggest purchase of their lives. 48 hours in jail may be a great pretrial offer, but don't discount the fact that your client has never stepped foot in a jail. They may wonder why you would give a continuance to their wife's attorney in a nasty divorce. Take the time to explain things to your client. Inform them that they shouldn't freak out if they don't see you at the courthouse exactly at 9 AM. Or that it is standard practice to agree to the occasional continuance. Things that are daily fare for you are foreign to your client. As with doctors, try to have a good "bedside manner." 2. Return Calls and E-Mails I know many attorneys have a few clients who constantly call to the point where you want to cut down the telephone pole outside your office. Nevertheless, ignored phone calls will only strengthen your curmudgeonly client's resolve to reach you. A minor annoyance can quickly turn into an angry client who will surely besmirch your reputation. At the very least, they will never refer anyone to you. There are also ethical concerns. A lack of communication between your client can be grievable. 3. Pay Attention to Them If you are meeting with a client, treat them as if they are your most important client. Don't keep interrupting them to answer your phone or to check who won last night's game. Make them feel like you are truly their advocate. 4. Remember Important Dates It goes without saying (but I will say it anyway) that you must remember things like when does the statute of limitations run, when is your next hearing date, and what time is your next appointment. It is good practice to remember other dates as well. In addition to occasional newsletters, I always like to send birthday and holiday cards to clients. It keeps your law firm in the thoughts of your inactive clients. It could remind them that they need a will or perhaps they have a colleague who needs a lawyer. Although some might suggest the practice of sending birthday cards is something only a dentist would do, you would be amazed at the response. Besides, what's your problem with dentists? 5. Appreciate Them If someone refers a client to you, send a thank you card or make a quick call. Take your client out to lunch once in awhile. Let them know you appreciate their business. 6. Dress Nice. Try to maintain a professional, successful looking appearance. Just because it's casual Friday, it doesn't mean you should show up to the office in a Hawaiian shirt and flip flops. This is especially true on days you are to meet with a client. 7. Never Call Them Fat This is a personal one for me. Unfortunately, it is indeed a true story. I happen to be one of only a handful of Connecticut attorneys that give legal consultations in Polish. It was one of those "who cares?" skills I never thought I could put to use in my professional life. Of course, with over 300,000 Polish people in the state and only 4 or 5 area attorneys that speak the language, I soon found myself speaking Polish rather frequently. A Polish client came into our office after a particularly horrific accident. She told me about the crash and the resulting operation. Wanting to show off my language skills, I attempted to say "you have endured so much since our last meeting" in Polish. Unfortunately, I mispronounced the word for "endured" and basically said "you have really gotten fat since our last meeting." My wife happened to be in the room and quickly corrected me. Thankfully it solicited a laugh from the client and not a punch in the nose.