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In this series, Oklahoma City attorney Noble McIntyre has been offering tips on rolling out the welcome mat for clients and prospective clients. His first two posts provided pointers on phone etiquette and office appearance — but it’s the people in your firm who set the tone. In this installment, Noble looks at how their behavior can help instill client confidence.
In every interaction with a client, the people involved are the most important element. And on the firm’s side, it’s not just about you, the client’s lawyer, but about the other people in your office, too.
So, once you’ve set the stage for a positive legal representation, who’s with you?
Does this new client require a team? If so, will it, for example, be a senior partner, an associate, two paralegals and an assistant? It all depends on the nature of the matter. Regardless of how many people are on the team, though, it is in your best interest to fight the perception that law firms continue to inflate bills with superfluous tasks and unnecessary staffing.
Whatever your method for determining who works the case internally, it doesn’t matter to your clients. At the initial meeting, they want to see the lawyer who will be handling the case. That’s it. The client wants to have faith in the lawyer’s presence, judgment and work ethic. Even if an associate or paralegal will ultimately be doing much of the client correspondence, clients know whose name is on the letterhead and who is the public face of the firm — that’s what they care about.
Of course, during such meetings, if you’re not a good note-taker, or you want to focus on talking with the client without worrying about the paperwork, it’s fine to bring in an assistant. Especially if this is someone with whom the client will be dealing on a regular basis, a face-to-face introduction is nice at the first meeting. But leave the whole “legal team” out of it for now. One lawyer and one assistant should be enough for a non-corporate client at a small to midsize law firm.
More than that will likely intimidate your client and make him worry about how much he’s paying.
Along those lines, be aware of what your appearance says about your firm — and likewise for your assistants’ and associates’ appearances. There are plenty of articles about dressing for success and how to manage a professional wardrobe on a budget. This includes neat, professional attire, with well-groomed hair and appropriate footwear. Other personal details (like tattoos, piercings other than ears, casualwear items like sandals and tank tops) really depend on your firm and your market. In some cities, what might seem unconventional elsewhere may be more the norm than not, and won’t bother clients at all. What is permissible should be a decision made by your firm’s management and be included in a set of written employee policies.
Equally important, though, is not projecting an appearance of overly expensive clothing or jewelry. Just like a super-fancy conference room, it might send the wrong message if your attorneys are wearing obviously pricey shoes, jewelry or clothes that the client would never be able to afford. Be professional, not extravagant. This should apply to everyone in your office, whether or not they have a client-facing function.
Appearance is not just about how people are dressed, though. If you have clients or opposing counsel walking through the halls of your firm, it’s crucial that everyone they see looks the “part” that your firm seeks to project (although if the reception area leads directly to the conference room and clients are unlikely to walk through the office, this is less important).
So, in addition to your colleagues’ clothes, appearance concerns what people are doing when a client walks by. If a partner’s door is open, for example, and a client sees him on the phone, feet up on the desk, having a chuckle, that doesn’t convey the image of someone working hard to zealously represent clients. A group of assistants huddled around a desk chatting also gives off a vibe that the firm might not be working that hard. The same goes for seeing people at their desks texting or browsing Facebook. It’s entirely possible that people may be on their break, but the client doesn’t know that when she passes by the workspace. If any of your employees sits where the public can see them, encourage them to conduct personal business in a breakroom or elsewhere out of sight when clients are in the office.
Certainly, these scenarios play out everywhere from time to time, but guidelines will help ensure this isn’t the type of behavior you put on display for outsiders to see.
Ultimately, you know your market and your practice best. The legal community where you practice will dictate the standards by which you most effectively obtain and maintain clients. As well, your areas of practice will dictate the kinds of clients you represent and the culture that your office should project.
While it may not be true that appearance is everything, it definitely counts for a lot. The best thing you can do for your firm is to view it through a client’s eyes.
Noble McIntyre is the senior partner and owner of McIntyre Law. The Oklahoma City-based personal injury firm is focused on making the community safer, and has been very involved in charity work over the last few years. You can connect with him at @NobleMcIntyre, @McIntyreLaw, on Facebook and Google+.
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