The Open House: A Primer
An effective way to celebrate the grand opening of your new law office/firm is with an open house. This has been a tried-and-true method for showing off your new digs to family and friends. It can also be a useful tool for gaining clients.
Today, open houses can be used to celebrate more than law firm grand openings. Solo and small firm attorneys—who are integral parts of the community in which they practice—can celebrate many of life’s moments with open houses with clients, family members, and close friends. Birthdays, firm anniversaries, and welcome receptions for new staff provide perfect opportunities to host events, from cocktail hours to full-blown celebrations. This article will give you some tips for throwing a great event time after time, whether or not finances are an issue. It will also give some ethical rules to consider in the planning and execution of an open house.
First and foremost, remember that the open house is a joyous occasion. That should be your mantra as you plan, because it is going to take work to plan the event. Depending on your financial resources, event planning experience, the time of year, the theme, and the type of event you’re throwing, you can plan anything from an intimate cocktail get-together to a large-scale event.
Food. Your guests will expect to eat at your open house. A cost-effective way to feed a crowd is to cull your contacts. Regardless of your work and personal experience, you’ll likely find a family contact in catering or a link to an ambitious culinary student who will cook for the event. This is also the most cost-effective way to have food for your event; in this instance, you pay for food and materials but not labor.
This method will require more oversight and work on your part. For example, if your spouse promises to cook for the event, you might have to roll up your sleeves and help. Cost-wise, however, this is the still most effective way to cater an event.
If money is not an issue, cull your contacts to find the caterer who will cater the vision that you see for your event. Top-shelf caterers will do all of the legwork and eliminate the headache that can come with feeding a group. Caterers are also prepared to deal with the contingencies that can make amateur cooks wilt (e.g., what to do if a particular supplier backs out of an agreement at the last minute). Ask for references and negotiate price terms with the owner or a high-level manager.
Make sure to invest time to investigate potential catering companies before deciding which one to hire. Great resources include the Better Business Bureau (www.bbb.com) and your state’s licensing agency. A little planning at the beginning can help ensure a worry-free event.
Beverage. For a smaller event, it’s a good idea to shop around. There are wine and liquor wholesalers where you can find great deals on both nonalcoholic and alcoholic beverages. Talk to the manager! This person is often very well-versed in the ways of food and wine. They know the inventory of their warehouse, and can help you determine the beverage quantities and pairings that make your event a success. The manager might even be able to negotiate price terms for beverages that could save you plenty of money.
If you have chosen to use a caterer for the food portion of your event, that caterer can also provide both alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages in the total price of the event. If the caterer provides bartenders for your event, see if you can negotiate the labor costs for those bartenders. Regardless of whether it’s explicit or not, bartenders at private events usually make great tips.
Theme. Because the reasons for open houses can be incredibly varied, it is appropriate to consider having a theme for the event. Although clowns and piñatas might be a bit much, a tastefully done theme can add individuality to an open house. Because you want your event to leave a lasting impression on the attendees, a theme can bring your firm to mind the next time an attendee needs help with IRS compliance.
If money is a concern, you can create a theme from the other elements of the event (food and beverage). If your firm will focus on international business matters, you can create a theme for your open house by serving food and wines from around the world. Another great idea to add to a food and beverage theme is to have colored light bulbs or lampshades that help create a mellow, soothing ambience so that your guests can relax. Sometimes, fluorescent bulbs can take away from the overall appeal of an open house.
Where money is tight, you can also create a theme using attire. This will give guests a chance to become more involved with the theme of the party. Send out invitations with suggested attire and see how many people dress the part. Creating a theme using attire will give you great conversation starters for the entire evening.
Even if money is not a concern, be careful about the numbers of objects or decorative pieces that you use to create your theme. In this instance, hiring an event planner to create your theme is a sure bet. After consulting with you, an event planner can come up with a number of ideas to achieve the theme that you desire, without making the event tacky and outrageous.
- Other Basic Logistical Considerations. Some other things to consider for your open house:
- Have your office thoroughly cleaned before you open your office doors to the public.
- Have enough of the basics available at the party (e.g., utensils, plates, glasses, and napkins, to name a few). If you’ve hired experts (caterers, event planners, etc.), check their counts against your RSVP list.
- Make sure that invitations get mailed 4–6 weeks before the event. The RSVP cutoff date should be no later than 2 weeks before the event so that you can determine the final amounts for supplies in a timely manner.
- Split the responsibilities evenly. If you are a solo practitioner, rely on family and close friends to help pull off the event. Remember, you have a law firm to run!
Who to Invite and How to Invite Them
This choice is determined by the circumstances of your particular firm. The square footage of your office will determine how many people you can fit. Your budget will determine how many people you can afford to feed. Your motives for having the open house will determine whether it would be better to invite only family and close friends or whether to invite family, friends, current clients, former clients, and potential clients. However, here are some basic guidelines to follow:
- If you are hosting the open house with the hope of gaining new clients, you should consider inviting current and former clients. Suggest that they bring friends or acquaintances. Mix this group with a splash of your family and friends to create a social event to remember.
- Open your PDA and give serious consideration to all of the contacts in it. If necessary, classify your contacts into groups (e.g., A, B, C, D, E) and invite people based on their categorization until you have reached your maximum. Send out invitations early so that you have the opportunity to invite more people if former President Clinton (from your “A” list) is unavailable on the date of your event.
- Get out your stale business cards and consider inviting that big firm attorney that you met at the ABA Annual Meeting in Honolulu. You never know what might come of it.
- Contact your undergraduate and law school’s alumni associations (usually private organizations) and their alumni development offices. These are valuable resources that are often underutilized by alumni. Some alumni development offices will even assist you with invitations for your event.
- Consider inviting your former coworkers and bosses. They are familiar with your work ethic and may be willing to send you business once they see that you have an established office.
In reality, it is not likely that you will be able to invite all of the people that you would like to see at your open house. Send announcements to the people that you cannot invite to your event. Most of them will appreciate getting the word about your new law firm.
Once your list is done, you must figure out how to invite your guests. You can choose from electronic invitations (through services like evite.com) or from traditional invitations. The Internet is becoming a more acceptable choice for invitations, but you should understand that improved firewall and spam filters could unceremoniously shove your electronic invitation into the trash and not into the intended recipient’s inbox. Pricing for invitations varies widely; check your local stationery stores for high-end paper invitations, or stores like Target or Wal-Mart for a more cost-conscious option.
There are four ABA model rules that generally apply to law firm open houses. As with any ethical issue, it is best to err on the side of caution when you are unsure about the rules. For more specific guidance on the rules in your jurisdiction, consult your state bar association.
Three of the four ABA model rules addressed in this article deal directly with the invitations that you send to your invitees. Rule 7.1 states that lawyers may not make false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the lawyer’s services. If you are including brief synopses of your firm or your attorneys with your invitation, triple check to make sure that the information you send is accurate. This applies to both the attorneys as individuals and to the firm as a whole.
Rule 7.3 discusses direct contact with prospective clients. It is okay to send paper or electronic invitations to prospective clients, but if your primary motive is gain clients from your open house, it would be good practice to include the words “Advertising Materials” on the outside of a paper envelope or at the beginning and end of any electronic communication. Check state rules to see whether it is permissible to contact potential clients by telephone. However, this is likely a sanction waiting to happen.
Rule 7.5 addresses firm names and letterhead, and is mostly applicable for those of you in an office sharing situation who want to cohost an open house. The rule states that you may “state or imply that you are in a partnership only when that is the fact” (emphasis added). This means that if two firms want to cohost an event, each firm name should be listed on the invitation so that potential clients cannot be confused about a partnership where none exists.
The Law Office of A.B. Ceedee, PLLC
The X.Y. Zee Law Firm, P.A.
Cordially invite you to celebrate the opening of the
Two law firms with a cocktail reception
At 23 Main Street, Anytown, USA,
On March 16, 2007, from 5:30–8:00 p.m.
This invitation clearly states that the firms are individual entities that are not in partnership in any way.
Cordially invite you to a cocktail reception
At 23 Main Street, Anytown, USA,
On March 16, 2007, from 5:30–8:00 p.m.
The above invitation could be very easily confused by a potential client, and could get both Ceedee and Zee into a lot of trouble with their state ethics board.
Finally, Rule 1.8 discusses responsibilities regarding law-related services. This applies to the conversations that you have at an open house. In conversations with potential clients at your office, be sure to qualify any legal-sounding information that escapes your lips. Rule 1.8 mandates that attorneys assure the potential client that the legal-sounding dialogue was 1) not a legal service and that 2) no lawyer-client privilege exists. It would be okay, however, to encourage the potential client to call your office during business hours to schedule a consultation. Be sure to check local rules for specific guidelines on how to deal with these conversations.
Finally . . .
Once the preparations have been made, enjoy yourself. An open house is a social event, and stressing about minor issues does not give potential and actual clients an impression that they should seek your representation. Mingle with guests. Get them to discuss anything but their legal problems. Introduce them to each other and help them build their contacts. You worked hard to make this vision a reality, so enjoy the vino and get to know the intimates that you have invited to your law office.
Shani K. Whisonant is a Maryland attorney. Her practice areas include education law, labor and employment law, and litigation. For further advice on office party organization, she can be reached at email@example.com.