Bad staff work can cause clients to loathe
you even before you deserve it
know what bothers me most about practicing law?"
Unaccustomed to such outbursts of attorney candor, I asked, "What’s that,
"Every new client who comes to see me is in a foul mood, and I spend the first
half of my initial consultations just trying to get people to act civil. I mean,
the woman I saw just before lunch acted like she wanted to kill me when she
walked in, and we’d never even met before."
Bland, you have a divorce and bankruptcy practice," I noted, deftly
demonstrating my grasp of the obvious. "You’re not going to find many clients
who feel like turning cartwheels in your office."
shook his head. "Nah, that’s not it. It wasn’t this bad before I went out on my
own. Listen, I want you to look into it for me."
"Yeah, you know, check around. See what the problem is."
felt like a character in a Dashiell Hammett novel. "Okay, Bland, listen. I’ll
nose around and see what I can find out. You’ll hear back from me in a few days
was unseasonally warm in Phoenix, and the inside of my Avanti felt like a sauna.
As I turned slowly onto Sixteenth Street, I cracked the driver’s side window,
and the fresh air cleared my head.
was it about Bland that got him off on the wrong foot? His deodorant? No, the
Speed Stick seemed to be doing the job. His personality? No, he’s a decent
enough guy and, anyway, he said that his woman client acted like she wanted to
kill him when she walked in. So something was happening to those people before
they ever got to Bland. But what? How could I find out? Then the light came on
* * * * *
Deirdre met me at my office door with the customary fistful of phone messages.
Thomas, Getzoff & Cleveland needed a
and website. Twist & Schaut wanted me to
lecture their associates on cross-selling.
‘em," I said. "We’ve got a caper to crack."
flipped my Rolodex to "Motley, Bland" and began dialing ...
or nine rings were followed by a flat, stern voice. "Law offices, hold
the line," she commanded. Two minutes of dead air, then: "Yes."
"Hello?" I said.
I’d like to schedule an appointment with Mr. Motley, please."
my name is Hays."
dead air. Thinking we’d been cut off, I was about to redial when suddenly a
friendlier voice came on the line.
Motley’s office. May I help you?"
made an "appointment" for the following morning ...
* * * * *
next day at 10:55 a.m. I walked into the waiting area of Bland N. Motley, Esq.
The receptionist was a disagreeable looking
woman whose first career might have been serving as a correctional
She seemed to be studying a pile of papers. After standing in front of her for
what seemed like several minutes without being acknowledged, I cleared my
throat. She did not look up.
you have an appointment?"
don’t show anything for Mays."
Her eyes never leaving her paperwork, she grabbed a beat-up clipboard and
slapped it down on the counter.
sit over there and fill this out. Press hard, you’re making four copies. He’ll
be with you in a while."
noticed two people seated in the waiting area. "Are they here to see Mr. Motley,
"Yes." She still hadn’t looked up.
were their appointments?"
my appointment’s at eleven."
you think I’ll have to wait long?"
picked up the clipboard, took a seat and studied the intake sheet. It had all
the warmth and brevity of a tax return. Thanks largely to Subsection K(13) –
List the Names and Last Known Addresses of All Relatives, Living and Dead, Not
Living With You – it took me about 25 minutes to complete the form. I
returned it to the receptionist’s counter.
long do you think he’ll be?"
"I'm not your fortune teller."
"Could you ask someone?"
the first time, she looked up at me. I wish she hadn’t.
Returning to my seat, I looked for something to read. The latest magazines were
a Newsweek with David Koresh on the cover and a copy of
Star, the first one I had ever seen
outside the checkout line at Safeway. I picked the latter. By the time I
finished "Headless Man Found in Topless Bar" it was nearly noon. I hadn’t seen
Bland, but I knew he was there; his office was close enough to the waiting area
that we could all hear him telling a client how everything they discussed would
remain confidential and that the thing about the sheep wouldn't come up at the
waiting area was less crowded now, Bland’s ten o'clock having pitched a fit
before storming out, vowing to make it her life’s work to bad-mouth him to
anyone who would listen and hoping that an incurable infection would be visited
on the receptionist.
Halfway through "Dwarf Kidnaps Nun, Flees in UFO," I looked up to see Bland’s
secretary enter the waiting area and announce to the remaining visitor, "Mr.
Motley will see you now." The visitor frowned, shook her head, hissed "It's
about time," picked up her purse and her box of Puffs and followed the legal
secretary toward Bland’s office.
receptionist’s phone rang. "Law offices. Hold the line ..."
you think that this is cute fiction but it doesn’t apply to your office,
think again. I've seen even the most august law firms occasionally entrust their
reception area to staff who learned their people skills at the Department of
their common sense from a myna bird.
(True story: A couple of years ago I was
in the lobby of a big law firm that has clients that nearly every other firm
in town would kill for. One such client – I recognized him from his photo on
the cover of the Business Journal on the coffee table – asked the
receptionist if someone could copy a document for him. Without
saying a word, she picked up the phone, murmured something, hung up
and said, "There's nobody here who can copy that for you right now."
It was 2:00 in the afternoon, the place was crawling with people who
looked as though they might be skilled in the operation of a copier,
and at a glance the document appeared to be about two pages long.
Before the mystified client could say, "But my company paid this
firm $9 million in fees last year," she went
on to advise him that – this is not a joke – there was an Alphagraphics just up the street.)
professional detachment that lawyers invoke to shield themselves from their
clients can contaminate a whole firm. As a result, your staff may view a client
or prospect not as someone who will help make payroll but, rather, as an adverse
party: one more file, one more headache, one more person to bitch at them. It’s
little wonder, then, that first-time callers or visitors feel about as welcome
as syphilis and, by the time you get them into your office, they’ve already
decided they hate you.
Fortunately, most people’s expectations for law office courtesy and service are
pretty low. Thanks to attorney jokes, popular mythology and bad experiences with
other lawyers, many legal consumers go into a matter expecting to be
ignored and jerked around.
it’s not hard to exceed their expectations. If your secretary ends a phone
conversation by saying – like she means it – "Thank you for calling; we look
forward to seeing you Friday," instead of "I’m going to hang up now," that can
make a pretty good impression.
goal is to make prospective clients say to themselves (and hopefully to others),
"Hey, these people appreciate my business." Here are some easy ways to make that
sensitive to the potential client’s mood. People generally don’t call law offices for a good
time. They call because they’ve got a problem – often a big one. Regardless of
their level of sophistication in using attorneys, the day they call for an
appointment may be the worst day of their life. You and your staff need to be
mindful of that and treat callers accordingly: with respect, patience and
Eavesdrop on your staff. To a caller,
you and your secretary are one and the same, attitude-wise. If she’s rude or
indifferent, then by extension so are you. If she’s patient and shows interest,
the caller should assume that you’ll be that way, too. Listen to how your people
handle phone calls. If a prospective client would be put off by their tone or
attitude, it’s time to have a performance evaluation ... or get new people.
Confirm the appointment. If time allows,
mail, fax or email a confirmation letter to first-time visitors. In addition to
confirming the date and time, the letter can include:
directions to your office (helpful if the
prospect is coming up from Gila Bend and thinks that "Central and Thomas" is
the name of your firm);
information on where to park;
your web address;
client information form.
Minimize "processing." Nobody likes to
feel like they’re being processed (remember your last visit to a new doctor?).
If you use a client information form, get it into your prospects’ hands, if you
can, before they show up. This gives them the option of filling it out in
advance, sparing them the awkwardness of completing forms in a crowded waiting
area, and eliminating delays in the unlikely event that you are actually ready
to see them when they arrive.
your waiting area. You’ve been there:
You’re at the dentist’s office, and while you’re waiting to let him try out his
newest instruments of torture on you, you have to rummage through enough old
magazines to clog a landfill just to find a four-month-old issue of People. Your
lobby magazines should be up to date and appropriate to your practice area. If
you have a commercial practice, keep only the most recent issue of the best
business magazines and newspapers. (Alas, not all practice areas have companion
publications; criminal attorneys will be hard-pressed to find recent editions of
Cell Beautiful or Lethal Injection Quarterly.)
Another thing about your waiting area: It should be far enough away from
conference rooms and attorneys’ offices to prevent visitors from overhearing
confidential discussions and aggressive collection efforts. If space limitations
render that suggestion impossible, equip your lobby with an expensive stereo and
a bunch of Jimi Hendrix CDs.
if the front desk is where employees congregate to gossip, complain about your
clients and report on their latest Wal-Mart adventure – without regard to the
presence of visitors – run 'em out of there. You shouldn't have to resort to
physical force; planting a well-timed rumor concerning the presence of Krispy
Kremes in some distant back-office locale will make them scurry like startled
roaches, leaving your clients safely out of earshot.
Preserve their privacy. Waiting areas
aren’t for everyone, especially people who’d rather not have everyone in town
know they were there. ("Hey, Don, I saw your wife over at my divorce lawyer’s
the other day. What was she doing, collecting for the United Way?") If someone’s
coming in to discuss a sensitive matter, your secretary should ask if they would
like any special arrangements for their visit (e.g., a private waiting area or a
with delays. When you’re running behind
schedule and you have people waiting to see you, don’t ignore them. If possible,
take a break from what you’re doing, go to the waiting area and confess your
sins. When you just can’t do that, send your secretary out to give them a
periodic progress report. Remember: Your clients’ time is just as valuable to
them as yours is to you. By making them cool their heels in the lobby while you
do something else, your implied message is, "I’m important. You’re not. Live
probably can’t make your clients happy about needing an attorney. But by trying
to make their initial contacts with you as pleasant as possible, you can make
them feel good about choosing you to help them, and you can get your
relationship off on the right foot.