Four Big Firm Habits You Need to Break

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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.

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  • Chad Murray

    Number 2 is so very difficult if you spent any time doing insurance defense work. I have to stop myself all the bloody time.

    (Edit for silly typos)

  • Drossman Law

    Excellent points. I also am a big proponent of learning to “Lower Your Thread Count” when approaching client matters. Smaller clients want competence, reliability, and results – but they don’t want to pay for 30 minutes copyediting a doc so it reads like prose. After years of being scrutinized for every little semicolon at the firms, it takes a little work to recalibrate – but totally worth it!

  • Good points Sam. Big Law attorneys moving into a small or solo practice must realize the “practice of law” is, for the most part, entirely different than in their Big Law firms. If these lawyers don’t modify the way they practice, they will likely fail. Thanks for providing some real world advice to help them make their transition smoother. And, most importantly, ROLL TIDE.

  • 55YearBroncoFan

    “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, andwere likely unhappy about being nickeled and dimed.”

    Easy for an attorney to do, particularly if attorney owns the firm and can set any billing rules s/he wants….but if one is a paralegal whose time is subject to attorney review and writedown without recourse, you bill. In other words, who has ever heard of an attorney cutting his/her own hours – yet they cut paralegal hours without hesitation.

    Collect all the .1s, add them up and bill the total. Copying-and-pasting subpoenas can legitimately be billed as “prepare subpoenas for service upon defendant.” Calls should be billed – after all, calls deal primarily with case preparation at some level; if not, client is still taking advantage of your time and you don’t work for free. It’s also nonsensical not to bill if a client calls, probably unexpectedly. Drafting letters should be billed.

    I was a small-firm paralegal and under pressure to bill, and caught hell if I did not bill enough. I can only imagine the pressure large firm paralegals are under to bill.

    • Paul Spitz

      The flaw is the notion that billing by the hour is the most appropriate way to charge a client. Administrative costs like copying, postage, etc. should be built into overhead unless they are extraordinary. A 2-hour conference call counts more as a meeting with client, while a 5-minute call is just, frankly, embarrassing when you bill it. The worst is when a client calls his lawyer to mention that a document hadn’t been sent yet, and the lawyer charges for taking that call.

      But your bigger point is well-taken. As the paralegal, you have to play within the rules that are set for you, no matter how flawed, and no matter how arbitrary. You aren’t being paid to do your job well, you are being paid to do your job as slowly and as inefficiently as possible.

      • 55YearBroncoFan

        Good points. Some firms charge for copying and postage while some don’t. My second firm, which worked on contigency, only began charging for copies after the younger junior partner thought it to be a good idea. I recall it bothered some of us at first. Surprisingly, to my recollection, clients never squawked.

        I was told to bill .2 minimum if a client called me unexpectedly; the rationale being I had to set things aside and stop working to deal with the interruption. I was a new paralegal at the time. For a while I did what I was told, until I felt it was wrong to bill .2 for a two or three minute call.

        Of course some clients call and call and really interrupt your day. Sometimes telling them you bill for each time they call curbs their urges. Sometimes not – perhaps because paralegals are more accessible than attorneys. I guess it all depends on the firm.

    • Sam Harden

      I get what you’re saying as far as a paralegal having to deal with what the attorneys / firm expect. My point is that in hiring a small firm I think the client is looking for a “value add” proposition – i.e. what value can the firm add to my case. My experience is that if you set out clear rules on billing with a client, they appreciate you breaking the perceived “norm” of attorneys price-gouging.

      • 55YearBroncoFan

        I don’t disagree……but IMO under that scheme paralegals deserve fair treatment with regard to billing write-downs. It is realized attorneys cut time to what they think clients will pay, but it is wrong to penalize paralegals in the process.

        I was told I had to bill X, but “X” was net hours. I had no control over attorneys cutting my time. One time I paid dearly for it.

        An associate assigned me review and summarization of a client’s handwritten notes/drafts subfile. I worked only on that file all week. I billed thirty hours. The next week I attended a mini review with the shareholder. She asked why I had not billed any time the previous week. It turned that associate cut all my goddam hours. I was totally flabbergasted. I was never more angry in my life than I was at that moment.

  • Wardlaw

    I am a big fan of recording all of my time (billing for everything) and then giving discounts, which are visible on the bill. I once had a client that was taking up a lot of my time, and was getting big bills. He complained once, and I told him I didn’t bill him for the hour a day his CEO would spend calling me on my commute home every day (yep, about 25 hours/month). He said “You never showed that to me in a bill . . . how was I supposed to know?” Lesson learned — bill for everything, but discount accordingly.

  • I wish I would’ve read this a few years ago; it would’ve saved me the trouble of having to learn these things the hard way (while at the same time wondering if I was doing the right thing).

  • Alright, here’s my take since this is a “new” post and I’m in a new position as the “company man” who’s reviewing the legal billing: I hate seeing inflated bills.

    I started as a solo and had a strong belief that I needed to provide value and service. That came through in my billing. I didn’t eek every dollar out of the client, but I made sure to add the expense as a no charge on the bill.

    I’m not the corporate attorney in charge of engaging and reviewing outside counsel’s work — that really sucks for them. That means now I want see value and service in every effort, and I especially don’t want to get billed for every “I” and “T.”

    In fact, I’m in the middle of reviewing one bill from outside counsel — 1 partner, 1 associate, 2 paralegals — and I’m getting more angry with each billing line. For instance, out of 35 lines of billing, I received 4 “N/C” items. And then I’m billed 1 hour to “review” a 1 page, form pleading. I’m not even going to count the multiple number of 0.4 “Phone calls to” charges by the attorney and a paralegal.

    I’m even more frustrated by counsel who can’t do things efficiently. This invoice I’m reviewing has $10 in fax charges. FAX. CHARGES. I’m fuming. Having inflated charges for simple tasks, such as word processing, highlights your incompetence.

    If your idea is to “milk the cash cow client,” you’re in for a rude stir when he/she finally wakes.