Sunday, December 31, 2006

Problems with clients

To one degree or another, we all have problems with our clients. Some offices have only a few, while others are virtually infested with them. Nothing can make a solo practitioner as miserable as a roster of bad cases and clients. It should be useful to look at the various species of bad, what causes it, and what to do about it.

1. Not your specialty: "I am a general practitioner, not a specialist". OK, I have the cart before the horse, THIS might be the problem unto itself. I am the biggest supporter of general practitioners, I have identified myself that way for 24 years. BUT what does it really mean? Does it mean you do EVERYTHING? Does it mean you try to? Does it mean you specialize in NOTHING? If you are a general practitioner, I'd offer this bit of advice, "REFINE HOW YOU DEFINE". Look at your biggest problem situations, the cases you should not have gotten involved with. Would you have taken them if your definition of what you do was clear, in your own mind? When it's clear in your own mind, it's clear in how you express yourself to the clients, and it will more often be clear that you are not the lawyer for that case. More on "refine how you define" in the next post.

2. Unclear fee arrangements: I recently implemented a new rule for myself. "Don't start work, or consider that I have a client, until there is a clear WRITTEN agreement laying out an outline of the case and all the fee and disbursements issues". A funny thing is happening. Writing these agreements is a lot of work, and takes a lot of concentration and effort. It seems like more work than the case is gonna be. It seems like its more work coming to terms with what I am going to do, than it might be to just start doing it......and then you have to STOP. and say, "THIS is the most important part of the case.....making the outline of what is expected and how the fees are going to work". Do not start without this. If this causes you to not start, you are ahead of the game.

3. Proving yourself: The client NEEDS help, you can see that. A little bird in your head is singing "This client needs ME". Throw that birdie some crumbs so it goes away so you can think. If that client needs help, but you are not the one, you have two choices that are way better than becoming their lawyer. One, politely decline the matter, or even better, make a great referral.

4. Not following your instincts: Client is nutty, and now is driving you crazy (You knew this when you first met them didn't you?). Did you think they'd be different with you? (Yeah) You did not have to get involved.
I think the client is not telling me the whole story (you were right). Could you have found out more of the story before getting involved? (Yes, but I would have had to work just to do THAT) Doesn't THAT tell you something?
The client has numerous civil cases and has left a trail of broken attorneys (they didn't even hide this fact, something which all attorneys know is a red flag of trouble) Were all those attorneys in the wrong? (Only when they made the same mistake you are about to make)

Bottom line: put in real effort at the outset in making your decision on whether, to what extent, and on what fee arrangement to get involved. You owe it to yourself.....

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Lawyers as Clients

I have often said that when my per diem practice started growing, it was a good thing because it eliminated the main problem of general practice.....the clients. Not to disparage my private clients, but here are some positive things about lawyers as clients, especially when they are hiring you for per diem work:
1. They understand that you need to clearly define the service to be offered, and the fee. Granted, the projects are often finite and simple, but I have never had a lawyer question me when I clarified the limits of the service, and defined the fees for extra services.
2. Most of them pay on time. Not all, but most. The challenge in per diem is to build a following of lawyers, and when you figure out who the dogs are, get rid of them. I will generally extend open credit to a new lawyer client, but if they start to run a tab above $500 and over 30 days, I address this immediately. I re-bill after 30 days, then fax a reminder in 45, then I call. I have also found it very helpful to accept credit cards by phone. It is very easy to set up, and if a lawyer client is running a tab that makes you uncomfortable, asking for a credit card payment is a sure-fire test of their intentions. If they don't pay, and don't agree to make a credit card payment, end the relationship.
3. They understand what you are supposed to do, and what you did. When something unexpected happens in court, as it often does, this does not cause the lawyer/client to lose confidence and question your ability.
4. The "case" least as far as my involvement. I don't have to maintain a file forever, and think about it, and have it get revived at unpredictable times. I get hired, I work, I get paid, its done......repeat.

These issues are all instructive in our problems with private clients, and worthy of further discussion.....

Friday, December 29, 2006

more thoughts on per diem

There are a lot of ways to get per diem business. Some of the standard ways work pretty well, including networking your existing attorney contacts, word of mouth, and advertising in bar journals and legal newspapers. I have always done best with variations on direct mail, to a targeted list. The attorneys I mail to are those who have court appearances coming up.....especially the types that lend themselves to per diem coverage. For example, most Civil cases in New York have a "Preliminary Conference" ( a "PC"....we love acronyms and abbreviations in the per diem biz). PC's are good ones for per diem because they are not too complicated, but one can end up waiting around for awhile. Unlike Federal Court, where they might schedule a PC at 3:45 in the afternoon, and you have a real conference with the court, in State Court they schedule about 75 PC's every morning at 9:30 AM. All the attorneys mill around the halls until they find their adversary, fill out their little discovery order, hand it in, and leave. Its worthwhile to pay someone else to do this, and its worthwhile to try to get these appearances because you can do as many as you can get. My personal record is 16.
Another reason I like PC's, is that its fairly early in the case, and if you make a new law firm client, you have a good shot at the CC (compliance conference), PTC (pre-trial conference) EBT (examination before trial, which most human beings call a deposition), and any motions.
I like PC's so much that I price them on the low side, to help grow the client base.
In this context the "client base" are other lawyers and law firms, in many ways the best types of "clients"....more on this in the next post....

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Thoughts on per diem work

About 10 years ago, I started focusing my practice on "per diem" court coverage for other attorneys. Essentially, I cover court appearances on civil cases in Queens County, New York. There appeared to be a demand for this service, which I had noticed in my own practice, especially when I had to appear in Court outside of Queens. Every time I would go to another County for a motion, or a scheduling conference, or a pre-trial conference, several things would happen: I would spend the entire morning there, I didn't know the local rules and customs, I didn't know the Judges or clerks or adversaries, I didn't know where to park or eat, and I was tired when I got back to Queens. When I covered my own cases in Queens, I found these problems weren't so bad, and I also noticed how much my adversaries generally hated being there. I started thinking about what I (they) would pay, not to have to do these appearances, and $75 - $150 seemed to be the range.

Another thing I noticed was that if planned right, one attorney could handle multiple appearances in the same building (I used to actually cover two buildings next door to each other, but I'm kinda nuts). All this takes is knowing the local practices, such as which Judges have a second call at what times, which Parts allow you to just "check in", etc. It also doesn't hurt to have the Court staff helping you (or at least not hurting you). Then, all I needed was a marketing plan and we'd be in "business".....