Saved By The Bell: The New Class Part I

To the newly graduated J.D. students who plan to open up their own office, whether out of necessity or choice, I say this: Get an office. Let me go even further; Get a phone number, which you personally pick up. Why so serious? Because you will no doubt be told otherwise by allegedly omniscient legal marketers. I warn you, they know nothing. Here is a prime example:

Today I was contacted by a potential client who needed some Bankruptcy counsel in a jurisdiction where I don’t practice. I told the client I would look into it and try and put him/her in touch with someone who practiced Bankruptcy there. I called a few people and no one had a recommendation. Fine. I then perused “the Google” to see what was out there. I’m all up on there and stuff; so why not? I found a few wonderful websites that, like mine, had video. But not of the lawyer. Instead it was of a spokesperson for the lawyer (don’t do that either. Totally creepy). I then found an attorney who I’ve seen (or heard, or whatever) on Twitter. Good credentials and seemed quite knowledgable on Bankruptcy based on blogs, etc. I gave the office a call and was met with a voice prompt asking me if I’m calling for one of seven different reasons. I hate that. Reminds me of calling my student loan people or AMEX (neither of which ever have any good news for me). Nevertheless, I press some buttons. I’m now in a different department for this seemingly solo law firm, but, surprise surprise, no humans answer. Instead I’m prompted again to enter some number. I do. A short ring later and I have a pleasant woman on the phone. I explain to the woman that I’m an attorney with a possible referral (the Gold standard of referrals, by the way) and I ask to speak to the attorney. “I’m his off-site scheduler. He doesn’t take phone calls.” “What, like now? He’s busy? And you’re off site?” “No, he doesn’t actually take calls, but you can email him. Have you ever referred a case to him?” “What? Does he have a cell? I don’t think you understand, I’m a lawyer who wants to send…” “Sir, here is his email address.” Needless to say, I moved on…

You will, no doubt, get ridiculous advice from social media gurus and legal marketers in your career who will try to pitch you their services (I will give these “services” to you for free because they are ridiculous and should be free in the first place) and explain that the overhead you cut by not having humans pick up a phone in an office will save you tons of money and you will be rich in no time and happy and everyone loves everyone. There are a few such lawyer marketers where I practice. I do not see them in Court. Take that as you wish. They do not realize the money you inevitably lose with such a proposition.

Yes, if you’re just starting out, you’ll likely be broke and need to cut costs anywhere you can. I did the same thing. Worked in a glorified closet my first year of practice (akin to “walking 6 miles in the snow” for our grandparents). Get a virtual office and a virtual address if you need to, but have somewhere to meet these clients. A conference room. An office of some sort. Not a pizza parlor. Not a Starbucks. One of the most ridiculous ideas I put into practice was allowing clients to “Skype” me. You know how long it takes to show my mom how to turn on “the Skype camera??” (My mother is not a client.) Clients don’t want to Skype you, they want to see you in person; In an office and not a pizza parlor. You think you inspire confidence to ask for big fees when they see your poodle running around in the background? As for your phone, if you’re first starting out, give them your cell. Give them a Google Voice number that connects to your cell. But, please, don’t use telephone prompts or an answering service. You’re not a dentist and your client isn’t calling “after hours”. You know anyone who likes that nonsense? No one. If someone told me I had to jump through some hoops to get a lawyer on the phone when I’m potentially going to pay them thousands of dollars I would chose another lawyer. The money and clients you likely will LOSE because your office is so outsourced and “efficient” could pay for more than enough office support staff. Any lawyer who tells you they work from home all the time and have some service answering their calls and they “love it” because of the freedom it gives them confuses efficiency with revenue. I can be absolutely efficient if I fire everyone in my office (I would never, Danielle and Ann) and start to work from the coffee shop down the block, but I’d likely lose a ton of clients in the process. My revenue would decrease substantially. That doesn’t make me more efficient. It makes me smaller. You don’t grow as a law firm from this. You don’t grow from hiring “virtual” assistants and paralegals and being paperless. You grow because you want to grow and you work harder and you do more and you push and you keep learning about the law and getting better (run on sentence of the year). And to suggest, like many of these marketers/consultants/coaches do, that this saves the client money is absolutely ridiculous and verges on being completely dishonest. Hear a ton of jokes about lawyers saving their clients money recently? Heard the one about the “paperless lawyer” who is able to “pass the savings onto the client?” No, no you haven’t. I know some lawyers who work from home; seasoned litigators who are absolutely amazing at what they do but who can meet their client somewhere when they need to and who absolutely pick up their own calls. Their hourly fees do not go down because they work from home. They don’t “pass on the savings” and the client wouldn’t even care if they did.   This isn’t a Chevy dealership.  A client wants good work done in a reasonably fast manner and the ability to communicate with their lawyer when they need to.   That’s it.  End.

My lesson here: DO NOT sacrifice what your clients want and need in the name of “efficiency” no matter how good it sounds. No one is going to want virtual when they have the option of having real. No one is going to press prompts when I’ll just pick up the phone if they call me. You’ll no doubt save some money if you are “fully virtual” but I can promise you, you’ll have a much tougher time growing in the process.