Your Personal Relationships with Clients Probably Aren’t As Strong As You Think


Solo and small-firm lawyers often cite their strong personal relationships with clients as one of the main reasons why computers aren’t going to make them irrelevant any time soon. While lawyers probably aren’t going to become irrelevant any time soon, it probably is not because their personal relationships with clients are so strong.

I think many of those lawyers are overestimating those relationships. Most lawyers’ relationships with clients are pretty superficial and businesslike. Lawyers rarely get more personal than posting “Happy birthday!” on the client’s Facebook wall (or, worse, a holiday card with the firm’s logo and a stamped signature).

But what should worry lawyers more is that it is absolutely possible for bigger companies to forge strong personal relationships with customers through great client service. Here is an example.

It was really touching, and I have told that story again and again …

My first daughter, Caroline, was born in 2009. On my way to the hospital, I called Ruby Receptionists and told them to hold my calls for 48 hours. When I stopped by my office a few days later to check the mail, a care package from Ruby was waiting for me. There was no Ruby branding, just a note and a few nice things from a high-quality baby brand — a rattle, a onesie, and a pacifier, I think — for our new baby. It was really touching, and I have told that story again and again as an example of why I love Ruby. The first time I met some of Ruby’s people at a conference, I felt like I needed to give them a hug (and they were okay with that).

What is the most thoughtful thing you have done for a client? If someone else did the same thing for you, how much of your loyalty would it earn? Would it make you want to give them a hug?

Ruby’s approach is actually pretty simple. According to Ruby’s Katie Wilson, “We start by looking for people who genuinely enjoy making other people’s days. Then, we incentivize them, share stories of what other Rubys have done, and provide various tools to make it easy.” One of those tools is the “WOW Station,” a well-stocked desk full of gifts, cards, wrapping paper, and tools.


Further, Ruby maintains a prepaid Amazon account that any employee can use to buy anything for any client at any time, no questions asked. The only guideline is to avoid “wowing” the same client more than once in a four-month period — although that is also a judgment call Ruby leaves to its employees. Wilson says the gifts make up roughly 2% of the company’s marketing budget, but since 60% of Ruby’s clients come from word of mouth, it’s a pretty great return on investment.

Call it institutionalized thoughtfulness. It is obviously impossible for any one person at Ruby to have a deep personal relationship with any one client, but individual employees are empowered to act on what they may learn during a phone call or request from a client. It’s not faked, either. Ruby receptionists really are paying attention and looking for opportunities to surprise and delight clients. Being thoughtful is part of their job.

The bottom line is that big companies can deliver greater client service — better even than most solos and small firms. Not all of them do, sure, but for every Comcast, there are plenty of examples of companies that know how to suprise and delight customers and clients. (Ruby Receptionists, Zappos, Freshbooks, USAA, and Trader Joe’s are just a few that come immediately to mind.)

Keep a box of nice, brand-new toys and puzzles and games in your office and let your clients’ children pick something to take home.

Great client service and relationships should be even easier for a solo or small firm, but I think a lot of lawyers are deluding themselves about the strength of their client relationships. Clients probably aren’t all that thrilled just because they got to meet you at your office a couple of times, or that you send a holiday email every year.

You can take a page from Ruby’s playbook, though. Stock a cupboard with gifts, cards, and mailing supplies, or just give yourself permission to send a thoughtful gift to anyone you know, whenever it occurs to you. Don’t keep a box of toys and puzzles and games in your waiting room for clients’ children to play with. Keep a box of nice, brand-new toys and puzzles and games in your office and let each kid pick something to take home. If you are crafty, keep a supply of your handiwork for your clients, when the occasion arises.

The gifts you give don’t need to have your law firm name plastered all over them, by the way. The act is more important than the thing. People will be even more likely to appreciate a gift and remember who it came from if it isn’t blatant marketing. If it is a coffee mug, fine, put your logo on it. If it is a onesie or a fountain pen, skip the logo and include a personal note.

No gift cards, either. A $10 gift card to Amazon or Starbucks is pretty unremarkable. A $10 teddy bear for your client’s kid, however, is potentially memorable.

If you want to make your client relationships strong, the key is to find a way to incorporate thoughtfulness into the way you do business. If you do that successfully, your client relationships really will be as strong as you think they are.

Originally published on 2014-08-21. Last updated on 2015-09-03.

Featured image: “Business man offering a gift” from Shutterstock.

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  • Jay Brinker

    You are so correct about the tenuousness of relationships. My practice usually involves “warm and fuzzy” signing meetings when clients sign their estate planning documents and everyone leaves smiling. I then send them annual Christmas cards as a means of maintaining contact.

    I am in the process of contacting all past clients to remind them to update their documents due to estate tax law changes (admittedly I am late on this, but due to estate tax law changes working in my clients’ favor for 13+ years this was not a pressing issue). I have found that many have updated their documents with other attorneys. I appreciate the clients who receive my cards over the years and then call to say that they updated their documents with someone else which can be annoying, but it is better than nothing. Meanwhile, I wonder what the others who revised their documents elswhere are thinking when they receive a card from me. I guess “I wonder when he will tire of sending me a Christmas card?” Or “I like the most recent lawyer’s card better than the former guy’s. His were too modern.”

    For anyone else practicing estate planning, I recommend actively contacting clients about potential revisions every five years.