After two years in a big firm, I went solo. Running a small or solo practice is much different than practicing law in a big firm, and I quickly found that the bad habits I developed at my firm were hurting my practice and my professional relationships.
Here are four bad habits I found myself doing and what I did to get past them:
1. Pick Up The Phone and Talk to Your Clients
American Bar Association Model Rule 1.4(a)(3) says that you “shall keep the client reasonably informed about the status of the case.” During my tenure at a big firm, it became easy to concentrate on billing time rather than paying attention to the people and businesses I was representing. Instead of keeping my clients fully informed about what was going on in their cases, I spent nearly all my time doing “billable” tasks that would keep myself profitable . Sure, I kept the insurance company informed — they were the ones paying my bills — but I rarely initiated contact with the client I was actually representing without being prompted.
Numerous bar journal articles across the country say that communication with clients decreases your risk of a legal malpractice case. When you are running a solo or small firm, many new clients will come through word-of-mouth from your old clients. Affirmatively reaching out to your client just to say hello can go a long way. This is not to say you should show up to your client’s kids’ soccer games, but reach out and talk to them even when you are not obligated to do so.
2. Do Not Bill for Everything You Do
In many big firms attorneys bill clients for everything they can think of — telephone calls, letters, even copy-and-pasting subpoenas. But before you start machine-gunning a client every month with 0.1’s, you should understand that your clients have probably hired high-billing attorneys before, and were likely unhappy about being nickeled and dimed.
In my small practice, I tell hourly rate clients at sign-up what I am not going to bill them for: travel time around town, speaking with them on the telephone (no matter who makes the call), or writing and reading emails or letters. I also put this in the retainer agreement. Some clients have actually been shocked (in a good way) that I would not charge for these things.
A caveat: I have not had a client barrage me with calls or emails. If you are worried about a client taking advantage of unlimited free telephone calls or emails, consider setting a daily or weekly limit.
3. Cut Your Clients a Break on Fees
How do you want your clients to remember you?
This goes hand-in-hand with not billing for everything that you do. I believe the old adage that everything looks like a nail from a hammer’s perspective applies to attorneys billing a client. If you are able to resolve a case quickly in your client’s best interest, consider cutting your client a break on the total fee. It can pay dividends in the long run.
4. Do Not Hide in Your Office
During my tenure as a big firm associate, I frequently ate lunch at my desk. I sat behind my computer most of the day with my door closed, working and entering time. There will always be days you need to spend holed away getting things done, but unless you have no need for new clients, I would strongly recommend getting out of your office and being social. The saying “out of sight, out of mind” definitely applies to attorneys who get business through referrals. You do not want to find you missed out on a referral because your friend or previous client did not know you practiced that particular area of law.
It is natural to pick up habits that are good or bad if you have worked in a big firm. While some habits can help you be productive and profitable, others can hurt your client relationships and referral network.
Originally published 2014-11-12. Last updated 2015-12-11.