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May/June 2020


A Short Course for a Successful Practice

Peter Roberts

Managing the client relationship is as important as doing top-notch legal work. The client is likely feeling tension about both the legal matter and the initial meeting with you. Certain clients want only “legal help” to get from Point A to Point B. After the matter is concluded, the client will not remember much of what you said or much about what you did, but the client will remember how you made him or her feel. Your ultimate goal is to have your clients refer other clients to you based on that “feeling.”

Lesson No. 1: Client Intake and Communication

Use your interpersonal skills to help the client feel more at ease and follow these practices:

  • Screen prospects for red flags (e.g., you are the third lawyer on the matter).
  • Use a client intake form—ask how the client found you.
  • Check for conflicts of interest—of course!
  • Use a written agreement for the representation.
  • Describe your policies for email and text—and how to handle emergencies.
  • Say, “I understand how this matter is upsetting for you.”
  • Use a list with the status of all open matters—important!
  • Contact clients with dormant matters on a regular basis.
  • Limit all incoming telephone calls to 10 minutes whenever possible.
  • Delegate callbacks to staff if possible.
  • Keep the total number of open matters to 25 to 40—depending on the practice areas.

Lesson No. 2: Perception is Reality

How are you perceived by clients and the general public?

  • Your professional reputation establishes you among colleagues. Your integrity, honesty, level of service, knowledge of the law and how easy you are to deal with are all factors.
  • Your social reputation establishes you among colleagues, friends, family and staff. Your social reputation includes your table manners, use of alcohol (if applicable) and general social bearing as you engage in professional activities, hobbies, sports activities and cultural interests.
  • Your web reputation establishes how you are perceived through your various online platforms.
  • Your street reputation establishes how you are perceived by staff and vendors. Your street reputation describes how you handle the management of your office and practice. Examples are paying expenses of time, staff scheduling flexibility, your management of anger and how you communicate reprimands.

Lesson No. 3: What Not to Do

Do not allow being busy to deceive you into believing you are productive. If the client is not paying you, you are not productive. Watch out for these pitfalls:

  • Not asking for enough of an advance fee deposit from new clients in adversarial matters where wealth is being divided.
  • Not asking to replenish the advance fee deposit before the trust account balance is zero (“evergreen” IOLTA account).
  • Not keeping good time records.
  • Not billing all time worked.
  • Not charging for consultations after 30 minutes.
  • Not billing timely—sending a bill today for services rendered through the end of the month two months ago.
  • Extending credit to new clients in adversarial matters.
  • Not insisting on payment before further work is performed.
  • Not following up on amounts owed.
  • Not charging due to denigration of legal services—take pride in what you do.

Lesson No. 4: Getting Paid

Net income to you is “what’s leftover” after paying office overhead and staff costs. Net income comprises disposable income, fringe benefit costs and retirement plan contributions.

The sum of these should be 50 to 80 percent of your gross fees as a solo or per lawyer-owner in a small firm. Why the range of 50 to 80 percent? A solo practitioner without staff realizes a percentage up to 80 percent or above, but with lower total gross fees than if staff is present. Having staff usually means a percentage nearer 50 to 60 percent. The table shows sample relationships of net income (yield to lawyer) to gross fees. Let’s look at what drives gross fees:

  • New work—Referrals should be a major source of potential clients.
  • “Nonrefundable” or flat fee—It’s your money upfront; if you withdraw two days later, ethics and good client relations demand you refund some portion or all of the fee.
  • Advanced fee deposit—These are unearned monies paid to you that are not yet yours. Always insist on this payment. It tests willingness to invest in the matter. Beware of the person who “changes his or her mind” and wants a refund—now—before the check has cleared as collected funds (not as “available” funds). It’s most likely a scam.
  • Timekeeping—Capture as much effort as possible in your automated time and billing system. Time not recorded is time not billed.
  • Billing—Billing means extending credit. If you extend credit, do it with knowledge the client is able to pay your bills. “Able” is one thing. “Willingness” is quite another. Keep the client informed and return phone calls. Use a time and billing software application. Such applications build a database for analysis and improve the whole time and billing process.
  • Working for too many clients who cannot pay your bills—This factor is the most frequently cited reason that a practice struggles.

Lesson No. 5: Conclusion of the Matter

When events bring the matter to a conclusion, send a letter to the client that:

  • Describes that your work on the matter is complete.
  • Thanks them for the opportunity to be of service.
  • Describes an enclosed refund and/or documents.
  • Describes further actions the client agreed to take.
  • Asks how your services might be improved.
  • Describes your file retention/destruction policy.
  • Asks the client to consider referring others to you.

This communication reinforces in the mind of the client a sense of professional closure. The client then thinks, “Yes, I certainly will recommend this attorney.” And will likely do so even if the result in the matter was less than hoped for.

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Peter Roberts


Peter Roberts is a private practice management consultant for lawyers. He was the former practice management advisor in the Law Office Management Assistance Program of the Washington State Bar Association for 13 years. He is active in the ABA Law Practice Division and is serving this year as the chair of the Law Firm Finance Committee.