Wednesday, November 16, 2011

4L: What to do when . . . You get your first client

OK boys and girls! This is it! You've finally delved into the practice of law because you now have a client!!!!! Congratulations! Throw a party!  . . . and then become very afraid . . . (which you've probably already done).  But don't fret, because you're worth your rate even if you don't think so.  Well it IS true.  And now we're going to increase your worth.

Now that someone has actually decided to hire you, what should you do?  You need to decide where to meet the client, what to bring to the meeting, and what to say (or better yet, how to act).

Where to meet
That really depends on if you're practicing out of your house, your parents' basement, or an office.  If you're practicing out of your home, you should be aware of some issues that make it hard to meet there.

First, are you willing to allow a person you don't really know come into your home? When I practiced out of my parents' basement, and then out of my downtown apartment, I never was willing to do that.

Second, is your home ADA compliant?  If you're not in a wheelchair, it probably isn't.  In that case you should punt your meetings to another place.

Third, can you maintain a professional atmosphere in the home? And by this I mean DO YOU HAVE A FREAKING OFFICE IN YOUR HOME (my father would not approve of that euphemism, however, he has used it recently [at the age of 77])?  If you are going to meet in your kitchen, bedroom, or even at your dinning room table, you may consider heading to a quiet corner (CONFIDENTIALITY) of a Panera or Starbucks (this recommedation is in no way an endorsement of either business and until I receive advertising checks from either, it will remain that way ;-)). 

Also, if you practice from home, getting out will help you defeat the feelings of isolation and help create an emotional disconnect from your home workspace.  Take every opportunity you can to get out of the house if you practice from home.  The sun will do wonders for an unmotivated day.

When I practiced out of my downtown loft, we had a downstairs conference room and lounge.  I opted for that and it always seemed credible to my clients (I also had a security officer that would have to call me down so it seemed much more big-time than it really was).

I've also offered to meet at the client's home, and they've appreciated this depending on their situation. This can also be dangerous and I would not recommend female attorneys meeting at a male client's home (I'm old fashioned, but "old fashion" trumps "kidnapped and mangled death" . . . I win).

If you work from an office . . . meet at the office.

What to Bring
You need to bring a pad of paper for notes.  You need to bring two pens (if your only one stops working, you'll look unprepared).  You need to bring two fee agreements.  You need to bring a client intake sheet for their personal information.  You need to bring something to bring these in.  You need to bring a mind of research. 

Hopefully you spoke to the new client enough to know what AREA of law this is.  You should do some foundational research on the issue at hand, and some offshoot areas.  And this isn't because you're going to resolve the issue.  It is simply so your clients think you know what you're talking about.  You must instill confidence in them here.

What to Say (How to Act)
Control the situation, but listen.  Your new client will be expecting you to tell them what to tell you.  They'll be expecting you to tell them when to tell you.  They'll be expecting you to tell them what you know.  As this may be your only meeting before you go to court to argue a motion, or before drafting a pleading, get as much information as you can here.  Ask them to tell the story from the top, in excruciating detail.  And take notes.  Not so much that you miss it, but enough that you get the issues for later.  After they tell you, then tell them. 

Tell them the area of law.  Tell them what the courts generally say in these instances.  Tell them the TRUTH.  It they have a case that will lose, you better tell them! You'll be on the hook later anyway!  If they have a losing case, tell them how you're softening the blow, or at least protecting the amount they will lose.  CLIENTS APPRECIATE THIS. THEY DO. NO, SERIOUSLY... THEY DO.

Fee agreement time . . . dun, dun, dun . . . Why is it so hard to ask people for money for services you just don't believe in?  I know it is.  But the client believes in you, so don't let your feelings of inadequacy get in the way.  Say, "Ok, I can do [rattle off what you're going to do in their case] and here's what I charge . . ." (look at the market, but $175.00 - $225.00 per hour won't scare most clients in larger areas.  If you're in a smaller areas $125.00 per hour will do).  You have to be confident here.  Don't offer discounts, or lead on that your rate is too high.  I've done that.  I never got paid . . .

When I say, "You WILL PAY ME OR I'LL THROW THE GAME," I get paid . . . Seriously though, if you're confident in your rate, and ask for the money, you'll get the money.  Don't apologize. 

Get both agreements signed and send one with them.  Have them fill out the intake form while you're closing the deal.  Thank them for their time, tell them you'll be in touch (because you will be sending an engagement letter), and send them on their way.

Congratulations! You have a client.  Now get to work. 


Your Dear Wormwood


  1. You forgot to set up an IOLTA with a qualifying bank. I'd also suggest you hire a payroll service to deduct payroll taxes and essentially insure you against a zealous IRS.

    And to make sure you get paid, many Bar associations recommend a credit card service. Yes, some charges, but being charged 2.5% on a transaction is better than not getting paid at all.

  2. You only need an IOLTA if you're holding client funds. Those of you doing flat or fixed fee billing may not need one. However, look to your state's Professional Rules of Conduct.