Foonberg’s Favorite 70 Rules of Good Client Relations

By Jay G. Foonberg

This list is designed for busy lawyers and staff. These rules can easily be followed by lawyers and staff in the day-to-day practice of law. This is a list that you can read in a few minutes or study and think about as long as you wish. The rules in this list require little or no money and very little lawyer or staff time or effort to implement. You can easily add to this list based on your own personal experiences.

01. Always carry high-quality professional cards.

02. Always offer clients and other visitors coffee or a soft drink while they wait in the reception area.

03. Be sure your reception area contains periodicals indicative of the kind of practice you want people to think you have.

04. Be careful when you answer the question, “What kind of law do you practice?” Don’t limit yourself or your firm.

05. Always send thank-you letters when someone refers you a client.

06. Always send thank-you letters to the witnesses who testify for your side (if the local rules permit).

07. Either return all calls yourself or be sure that someone returns them for you. Return all calls before the end of the day and preferably within 2 hours.

08. Always send clients copies of all “correspondence in” and “correspondence out.”

09. Dress the way you would expect your lawyer to dress if you were a client paying a fee.

10. Always get as much cash up front as possible from new clients. This is known as “Foonberg’s Rule” and is a modification of Lincoln’s statement that when a client has paid cash up front, the client knows he has a lawyer and the lawyer knows he has a client.

11. Always be sure that your fee agreement is in writing.

12. Always send your clients Christmas cards or Season’s Greetings cards.

13. Remember that your invoices are a factor in your clients’ opinion of you.

14. Dump the dogs. Get rid of the “bad news” cases and clients as soon as you know you have a problem—before they really give you problems.

15. Learn how to convert “social consultations” at weddings, etc., into paying clients by being attentive, letting the person know they may have a serious problem, and suggesting they come into your office where you have facilities for helping them.

16. Remind the staff in the firm that they can also refer their friends’ legal matters to the firm.

17. When a staff member refers a client, praise the staff member in a memo that goes to everyone in the office to remind them that they can also refer clients to the firm.

18. Remember that availability is the single most important factor in your being selected or not being selected after you are recommended.

19. Always send a tax newsletter in November, reminding clients of new tax laws that might affect them. Be sure you remind them that cash-basis taxpayers can deduct legal fees only if they pay them before December 31. Show the client how a bill can be tax deductible if possible.

20. Send clients “no activity” letters when a case is inactive for 90 days or more.

21. Always discuss fees and payment schedules at the first meeting.

22. Always remind the client that the firm has a good reputation in the community.

23. Always reassure clients that you have handled similar cases to theirs (if true). Clients don’t like being used for educational purposes.

24. Calendar ahead and remind clients of the need for annual minutes of shareholders or directors meeting, lease renewals, judgment renewals, etc.

25. Recognize and appreciate that clients have a high anxiety level when they go to see a lawyer. Be prepared to meet it.

26. Be careful if you adjust a bill downward that the client doesn’t think that you were deliberately overcharging to begin with.

27. Be sure that you and not the clients decide, before you do the work, which clients are going to get free legal work.

28. When collecting fees, try to match clients’ payments to you with clients’ receipt of money or cash flow.

29. Always be firm and in control in your manner with clients when discussing the case or discussing fees. If you act wishy-washy or wimpy, your clients will quickly lose confidence in you and stop using you and stop recommending you.

30. Don’t complain about how hard you’re working.

31. For client communications, always use high-quality legal stationery with your address clearly legible. Use large-size fonts for correspondence with senior clients.

32. Always have some hard-back, firm chairs in the reception room for injured or elderly clients.

33. Always introduce your clients to your secretary and to paralegals and/or associates who will be working with them or on the case.

34. Always get new clients into the office whenever practical to meet them before giving them any legal advice.

35. Be wary of clients who have lots of complaints about their former lawyers. It is probably just a matter of time until you are on that list of lawyers.

36. Always communicate to a new client that what the client tells you is normally covered by attorney-client privilege and that you won’t discuss the client’s affairs with other people.

37. When an interview is over, stand up, walk to the office door, and tell the client that the interview is over and walk them back to the reception area or elevator.

38. When the case is over, send a letter to the clients thanking them for the opportunity to have been of service to be sure they are not expecting you to do more work on the case.

39. When a case is closed, tell the client in writing that the file will be removed to a closed-file storage area and may be destroyed without further notification to the client. Nonresponse may be deemed acquiescence to file destruction without further notice.

40. When a client offers you a cash fee saying “nobody will know,” don’t forget that the client knows and may be setting you up for blackmail.

41. When a case is lost, be simple, direct, and honest. Tell the client by phone or in person as soon as possible and follow up with an e-mail and a letter.

42. When quoting settlements, be sure the client understands the difference between gross settlements and net settlements after fees, costs, and liens.

43. When quoting fees, be sure to cover (in writing) the difference between fees and costs and what the fee does and does not cover.

44. When collecting fees, remember that people are more willing to pay for what they desperately need and don’t have now than for what they used to desperately need and already have. Clients are more eager and willing to pay before the work is done than after the work is done. They will feel better and you will feel better if you get the advance retainer check before you do the work.

45. Always ask a client whether you should send mail and e-mail to the client’s home or office or if the client wants to pick up the mail (to keep information from getting into the wrong hands).

46. Keep a photo of your children or family on your desk facing you to remind you of unpaid bills and your need to be sure that the clients clearly understand and can meet their financial obligations in the case.

47. Have someone call your office for you while you listen in and see if you are satisfied with the way your phones are handled. See if the receptionist projects a helpful attitude or is simply functioning as a human answering machine. Remember, people can and do hang up and call other lawyers when they’re not happy with the way their call is handled.

48. Remember to give the client a road map of the matter at the first meeting, telling the client what will happen, when it is likely to happen, and what it is likely to cost.

49. When estimating completion dates, double the estimated time required and finish before that date if you can.

50. Remember that clients want you to listen to them tell their story, not vice versa. Remember you have 2 ears and 1 mouth. It was intended that you listen 2/3 of the time and only talk 1/3 of the time. Otherwise you would have two mouths and one ear.

51. At the end of an interview, always ask the question, “Is there anything you want to ask me or tell me?” Tell the client, “I don’t want you to leave here feeling that you didn’t have an opportunity to tell me something or ask me something.”

52. Limit your pro bono work to 5 percent of your time or you may become pro bono yourself. Tell clients and potential clients that you do pro bono work but must limit it to 5 percent of your time.

53. Be very careful of conflicts when you represent more than one client in a matter. Be sure to get appropriate waivers and consents to avoid being conflicted out of the matter without getting paid. Clients will appreciate your strict compliance to ethical rules. If there are two or more people in the room, ask yourself (and them), “Who is the client and why are the others in the room?” Have forms ready to cover the various situations.

54. Be flexible and creative in helping the client figure out ways to pay for the legal services they need. They will appreciate your working with them, and both you and the client can avoid unreasonable expectations. They might appreciate and be receptive to alternative billing methods.

55. Be sure you have a website. When you are recommended, clients will often check you out on the Internet before deciding to call you. Include your areas of practice. Try to include your full name in your website URL and in an e-mail address so that clients can contact you by simply remembering your name.

56. Consider having more than one website—one that includes your geographic area of practice for potential clients looking for a lawyer in a particular city, county, state, or neighborhood and another for potential clients who want to “check you out.”

57. Be sure to promptly respond to website-generated e-mail contacts.

58. Be sure a caller can immediately reach a live operator without several minutes of voice-automated hell. Clients are often nervous or upset and often do not have the patience for voice-automated prompt systems. If you are not in the office, the receptionist should ask callers if they wish to speak to another person or leave a voice mail. This may deter a potential client from calling another lawyer when you are not immediately available. If a voice-automated system is used, give the caller the immediate option of “dialing 0” to reach an operator.

59. Remember that a client or potential client is more likely to choose you based on your friendliness and demeanor than on your legal skills.

60. Remember that Yellow Pages are extremely effective in attracting certain types of work in certain communities. Do not advertise in the Yellow Pages unless your staff is trained on how to handle the calls that the ads produce.

61. Add clients’ names to your spell-checker to reduce the possibility of misspelling their names.

62. Keep a written list of who refers clients to you and to whom you refer clients and review it at least once a year.

63. Calendar client birthdays, anniversaries, or other important events to send cards or e-mail greetings when appropriate. Be sure to have the names of your own spouse and children and clients’ secretaries on the list.

64. Prepare a written document to be given to the receptionist on duty listing the most important clients and the difficult clients and how to work with them. Include how the clients’ names are pronounced. Indicate who covers for whom when the called person is not available.

65. If you have not spoken with a client in 90 days, call the client just to say hello. Start the call with, “I’m not calling on any specific legal matter. I’m just calling to see how things are going as we haven’t spoken in a while.” These calls often result in a new legal matter that needs attention.

66. Protect your mailing addresses (postal and e-mail) if you move or your zip code or domain are changed. Have mail forwarded even if you will also get junk mail and spam. Clients get very upset when they get back mail marked “return to sender” or “undeliverable.” Be sure to renew the forwarding services and notifications when they would otherwise expire and keep a stack of notices to send out every time you receive a forwarded item.

67. Protect your phone number and fax number if you move or if the area code changes. Have your phone calls and faxes forwarded to the new numbers. Clients get upset when they hear “This number is no longer in service.” They may simply call lawyer number 2 on their list rather than spend time and money calling information to get your new number.

68. Remember, you have a “marketing force” consisting of yourself, your firm, your family, your friends, those who refer you clients, and your former and existing clients. You are only one person. They are hundreds. Utilize the leverage of your entire marketing force instead of trying to do everything yourself.

69. Send clients alerts as to new laws and cases that may affect them or their business. Utilize e-mail or fax blasts to be the first person with the news ahead of printed formats.

70. Always shake hands with a client when saying hello or goodbye. Touching by way of handshake, cheek-to-cheek kiss, or other means appropriate to the client’s age, gender, and station is a basic human expression of friendship.

Jay G. Foonberg served as a member of the ABA Special Committee for Solos and Small Firms and the ABA Standing Committee for Solos and Small Firms, which became the ABA Solo and Small Firm Section (now the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division). He currently serves as the Law Practice Management Section Council Liaison to the GP|Solo Division Council. He has been honored with the GP|Solo Division Donald Riklis Award for lifetime services to the solo and small firm lawyers of America. He may be contacted through www.foonberglaw.com. These 70 rules were presented at the 2006 Indiana State Bar Association Solo & Small Firm Conference and originally appeared in Jay G. Foonberg’s How to Start and Build a Law Practice , fifth edition, published by the ABA Law Practice Management Section, © 2004 Jay G. Foonberg. Reprinted by permission.

Copyright 2007

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