Chapter 14 - The Clients. Where are the Clients?
Young attorneys just want to get out and start making money right away. Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Luckily, this book is short enough to read in a single setting.
First, we have to work on the sales pitch. With a glut of experienced lawyers out there, why should I hire a noob like you?
You better exude confidence and command without being arrogant. Talk to clients in terms they understand. Clients, believe it or not, are embarrassed to show their ignorance. You can sit there and tell them, "If I agree to take your case, the first thing we will do is bring a claim for breach of contract and alternatively, for quantum meruit."
Trust me. After you make the above statement to your prospective client, he will not have a clue if you know the law. Law school taught you a whole new jargon. You need to know that jargon. Your client does not. He just needs to know that you do. But how is he going to know that you understand it?
Clients are not afraid to ask a few questions, but most will not allow themselves to ask too many - either to hide their ignorance or for concern that they need to respect your time. If the client does not fully understand what you will do, the odds are that he or she will feel the need to go to another lawyer to compare notes on what both lawyers have to say. If he feels this need, your odds of reeling him in are reduced. However, even if he does get a second opinion, if you are the better communicator, the client often comes back and never mentions how he sought another consultation.
Therefore, it is imperative you talk to clients in terms they understand and without being condescending or impatient. You tell them:
The reason we need to add a claim of quantum meruit is because sometimes there is a technicality where a contract is found not to really exist. Let me give you an example. Let's say a guy is in the lawn-mowing business and was hired by my neighbor. He shows up by accident at my house and starts mowing. I smile and watch. Even bring him a glass of iced tea. Then, when he finishes and asks for payment, I tell him 'What contract? I didn't hire you.' Quantum meruit is a theory that was developed to solve this problem. It applies when one party provides labor or materials to another with an expectation that the other will pay for them, and when the other voluntarily accepts the goods or services knowing the person providing them expects to be paid. Believe it or not, it's a simple concept, but there are many attorneys out there who don't even know to include it in their lawsuits.
The client gets it. The doubts in your use of legalese have been resolved. He knows you are studious, intellectual, practical and understanding. And he knows he can count on you to keep him informed at his comfort level so that he does not have to worry whether he is in good hands or not. Further, you told him, indirectly, you are a better choice than many other attorneys.
It is surprising how many attorneys are not able to talk to their clients in this way. If you can develop this skill, your ability to close the deal and get the retainer go up - way up. After you close the deal, you need to continue to deliver in this way. Keep the client informed. These days, it is really easy. Just a quick e-mail with an update.
Do not just use your skills to close the deal and then turn from Jekyll to Hyde, leaving your client in the lurch. He parted with his money for you - he wanted you. It is like not getting a second date when, on the first date, it appeared that the stars aligned, the heavens opened and the sun shone through. Now, she will not return my calls! How distressing! It feels like betrayal at its worst.
Next, do not be too stuffy. Feel free to dress casually. Dockers and a short-sleeve, button-up shirt are fine on a hot day. If a full suit is your thing, go for it. But either way, do not be stuffy.
Third, when you communicate with a client orally, try not to be like Ben Affleck in his impersonation of Keith Olbermann ("This is something up with which we will not put."). You are dealing with normal people. Talk to them in a normal way.
Fourth, when you communicate with a client in writing, use at least a modicum of proper grammar. Spell properly. Avoid run-on sentences. (Hey, I know. This little book is not the perfect example of an editor's dream. But it is free, and it gets the point across on topics great editors never bother to cover and young attorneys really need to know.) Clients will judge you on your writing skills. You are their voice. If you need to get The Little Brown Reader to brush up on grammar, do it. Seriously.
Fifth, crack a light joke here and there. Offer a light ridicule of the profession, the court system, a certain applicable law, or whatever. Break the ice. Do not be a class clown, though. Just make the interview a comfortable one.
Sixth, it is a sign of weakness if you cannot bring yourself to talk about your fee. You better get over any weakness you have to address that topic with the same authority as you exude when discussing the law. Do not sit for 45 minutes without bringing up the subject of money. In reality, money needs to come up within the first five minutes. This does not mean you have to fully vet the issue and propose marriage so quickly, but you need to weave the issue in and out and begin early. Do not wince, and NEVER offer to negotiate your terms - EVER. If the client feels compelled to negotiate, let the client initiate the negotiation process. Then, stand firm. You have priced yourself right.
That said, do not weave back to the topic of money so often that the client gets the impression you are salivating over it but afraid to be direct about it. Eventually, and not too far down the line, you need to come to the punch line. "How much do you have?" That is a pretty blunt question when you have no clue. If you do that, be prepared for an answer that totally disappoints both sides. The client does not know what he is supposed to answer. (re-read the previous sentence)
If he has $20,000, he is not going to tell you this on a $10,000 case. That would be the same as saying, "Money is no object." If he has $2,000 but says "a couple hundred," you have forced a bad situation. It is your fault. You will have to diplomatically chuckle, without being condescending, and explain $200 is unrealistic. Instead, follow below on how to steer the client where you want him to go. The client should unwittingly know the answer you want before you ask the question.
Try to figure out what the client has by asking some not too direct questions:
What kind of business are you in? What do you sell? Is the other side saying your prices are inflated compared to the product's quality? No? What's a typical profit mark-up? Do you sell a lot of these products without regular complaints? How much would you say your sales are over the course of a year? How often do your customers default and refuse to pay? Ok, well you're sitting here needing a lawyer to collect. Have you set money aside for when these occasions to need collections attorneys arise? If not, how do you figure on paying for a lawsuit?
Typically, you get some good information in the matter of a few minutes, but you will not get an answer like, "Yes. In fact, I have $5,000 in the bank, and I can write a check for that now." Instead, you get answers like, "Business is okay, but it hasnít been stellar. Times get tight from time to time. They're kind of tight now. But, if I have to, I can come up with a little money. I need to get this bill collected. That deadbeat customer has put me in a pinch."
You have to dance a little more. So, you can follow up with something like this:
Ok. Here's what you need to know. Lawsuits arenít cheap. At $200 an hour, you don't want me spending 40 hours on a $10,000 case. There's unpredictability involved to some degree in terms of how far this has to go, but you can be assured that I bank on having repeat customers. That's why I need to do my best to get your money at the least cost to you.
But no matter what, there are just minimums to what has to be done. To file a suit, you can figure $250 for the filing fee to file the petition. This is paid to the court clerk - not me. I don't see a dime of it. Count on another $80 or so to get the defendant served by the process server. We're at roughly $350, and you can see I am still at $0 for me to eat.
I need to review your paperwork. It looks fairly straight-forward. With a small amount of research, figure on roughly 3-4 hours to get your petition drafted and filed with the clerk. Let's just say 3.5 hours as a very decent estimate. To get started, I will need $1,050. This will secure your lawsuit being filed. From there, we need to see where it goes.
But you'll have a little time to wait, and if needed, come up with any additional expenses we need. Maybe they call up, or have an attorney call, and just want to ask where the payment should be mailed. If so, we dismiss the case, and we're done. This would probably be another $200 to do the work to get it dismissed. You know what? I didnít consider that dismissal part when coming up with the figure a second ago. It's going to have to be done, so add that in. I will need $1,250 to start.
If they want to play silly like they don't owe, then, we need to address the strategy of sending a round of discovery. I know it costs you to do this, but it costs them as well. Answering discovery costs more than sending it. The other side might get the message that it really is smarter to just pay up than it is to fight. This is how it works in our world. First, we have to file the suit and see what posture the other side takes.
On a case like this, you can get pretty far along for $3,000 or so. We can also add a claim for attorney's fees so that if we go to trial and win, you can recover those back as well. But this whole lawsuit thing is a lot like sophisticated poker between lawyers. Are you going to crack over a mere $3,000 in attorney's fees and drop your suit? If so, the other lawyer did a great job for his client. He got his client out of a $10,000 debt he owed you. Not bad for $3,000. So, I need to know. Do you have the fortitude and wherewithal to file this case and to stick with it once we file it? I don't want it sitting and languishing. We either show the other side we mean business, or we look weak."
In many cases, you have the client pulling out his checkbook and writing a check for $1,250. Read all that again. Notice all the bait-lines? The thing is littered with them! The sad reality (or opportunity, if you want to see it that way like I do) is there is absolutely, positively 100% truth in these statements. It is better for everyone to know how it really is from the get-go. Use reality as a big selling point.
If the client hesitates but does not directly say he wants to negotiate, do not cave. Do not EVER offer to negotiate out of the blue.
I can see how this probably has you in a pinch. I get it. I totally do. How can you afford to pay me when your customer is not paying you? This is just one of those times when you get yourself kind of stuck. But I'm telling you exactly like it is. You can go shop around if you like. This town is flooded with attorneys. Some are probably cleaning windshields at intersections and would love to take your case for $500. But one thing for sure is you get what you pay for. For $500, you're going to get a slug. I hate to say it, but it's true. How some lawyers feel compelled to feed at the bottom is unfortunate. But that's because we have a glut of lawyers out there. A lot of not-so-good ones, too. Check out the grievance records at the state bar. Every month, they have about 40 lawyers who have been reprimanded for taking clients' money and doing next to nothing and never returning the clients' calls. That's like 500 lawyers a year! And those are the ones who get caught! It's crazy in a way, but that's the way it is. The streets are littered with these guys. These poor guys aren't getting paid what it takes to live. They've got your money, and instead of working your case like they should, they have to catch up on their past due bills and go find the next client. That's what happens all day, every day throughout this city. It's a big city. I can't bring myself to do that to people. So, I tell them up-front what it really takes to do a good job like a real lawyer should. It keeps them from wasting their limited money on the wrong attorney and then, being too broke to hire the one they really needed.
Once in a while, the client simply cannot afford you, or he really wants to take a chance on finding the $500 lawyer. Let him go. You will be better off if you do. Seriously, the situation described about taking money and doing nothing happens all the time. You do not want to be that lawyer. Get enough money to insure you are happy with the client and motivated to handle his case with diligence.
If the client feels he needs to negotiate, he will tell you sometime around this point. He will say, "Can we get started for $1,000? I can pay you a thousand right now." If this is a good number for you, take it. But do not let him off the hook that fast. Immediately after his offer, do not accept. Ask, "If we do that, I need to know how long you'll need to get the other $250."
Hey, it all counts. Do not leave money on the table. If he can come back the next Friday with the rest, you got everything you set out to get. This is called "a win." Take the $1,000 now, and tell him:
Okay, I'll do all the work necessary to get the suit filed, but I'll hold off on the filing until you come Friday. That way, we can use that $250 to cover the filing fees. By the way, we arenít going to have any issues on payment around 45 days from now after they answer, are we? We're going to have a pending suit, and I don't want to be the poodle whose bark is worse than his bite.
You will get your assurance for future payment. Always litter your pitch with bait which is based on reality. It is 100% true, and your client deserves the truth. If your client is not apprised of the realities, you will be the one who suffers along with your client. You are preparing the client to plan his budget now so he can continue to afford you to do more work later.
Then, as soon as the client leaves, you deposit the check, and immediately draft the petition (you should have made him leave the file or a copy of it). This way, you have earned the fee. If he changes his mind the next day, you can say, "Hey, I stayed up late last night and finished the petition. We're ready to file the suit. All you need to do is come in and get me the filing fees."
Guess what? You are on the case, and there will be no turning back. His cost is sunk. He is not backing down now. Then, you get to remind him, "Remember what I told you yesterday? When you get me, I promised you 'Johnny on the spot.' I am not bragging, but you are fortunate you came to me." The client feels good. You are right. He did get a good attorney, and this is now established as fact (provided you remain competent and diligent as discussed throughout this book).
Bear in mind, this book is not designed to teach you about the need to have the client sign a proper attorney-client agreement. You can go to law treatises for that sort of stuff.
"But," you say, "I'm still a baby lawyer. This guy's going to read me like a book. How am I supposed to convince him to pay that kind of money to a baby lawyer?
I've told you everything you need to know about the law and lawsuits. Granted, you can find an attorney with some grey hair out there to take this. But if he's not one of those bottom feeders and he's worth his salt, he'll want easily double what I am asking. He's not going to want to do any research and pay close attention to your case. Yours is one of 200 cases he's juggling around. He's happy to get your money, but your case, itself, is a nuisance to him. He's probably a bit tired of the grind. With me, I promise you diligence. You can obviously see I know the law. I promise you I am efficient and I care about keeping your costs low. I want you to be a repeat client. If you're lucky enough to never need a lawyer again, I want you to recommend me to people who do need a good lawyer. That's how we make it in this trade. Word of mouth is the best advertising there is. It's not possible for any lawyer to guarantee a result. In fact, the law prohibits lawyers from guaranteeing a result. But I can tell you this. My reputation is my stock in trade. You will get the best quality service from me, and I know what I'm doing. I'll keep you apprised and show you all the law. You'll see it for yourself.
More often than not, you will reel them in. Sometimes, you will not. Do not let that discourage you. Sometimes, you are not the reason why they declined. Some clients were coming to you hoping they could find a cheap lawyer. They are broke, but yet, they are rich on sob stories or promises of future payment. You better be grateful this client got away. Broke. Not likely to pay the bill when it came due anyway.
Bear in mind, not all clients must be required to pay retainers. Some, you can tell, are established enough to trust but verify. How do you verify? They pay their bills timely. Do not let them get too deep into you. Here, I am speaking about business clients. It is generally good to hold strong on the retainer requirement for any individual. They tend to expect to pay retainers as well. If the client, whether a business or not, appears to be shady or in financial straits, get your money up-front. You better get all of it because it is fairly likely all you might ever see.
Most importantly, when you do reel them in, deliver what you promised. Do the work without delay. Do not put it on the back-burner. Earn your fee fast. Keep them apprised. Show them any law you find. Show them the letters you write. Show them motions you draft. Show them the receipts for expenses and how they matched with what you told them. "No hidden mark-ups, just like I told you." Go over the law with them if it needs some explaining.
As you educate your client on all this legal mumbo-jumbo, he comes to learn that, in fact, you really do know what you are doing. He also sees that you really do work for your money. Do not just take his money and never show him pleadings, motions and correspondence. Give him visual proof that your charges were justified. At that point, he will recommend you to others. So, as you can see, you can, and do, gain a rapport fast.
Do NOT talk big about filing a suit when you are too scared to file one. You better get over that fear fast, fast, fast. File your suit. You will have plenty of time after you file (and are waiting for service of process and an answer) to bone-up on procedure and figure out what to do next. If you file the suit, and the defendant does not timely answer, do not wait in the hope that he answers since you do not know how to move for a default. Read and figure it out. Fast. There is no point in delay. Delay builds bad habits. Most (maybe as high as 70%) of the attorneys out there are guilty of this. Also, clients do not want to do the dirty work of putting their information together to support a defense case or to respond to discovery. Do not let these clients delay. When they lose interest, you lose interest. When you lose interest, you are not billing. You are not preparing their case. You are risking possible malpractice.
This example client and case involved a simple collection matter. There are hoards of these cases out there. If you do not feel comfortable in business "intellect" (the stuff of profit margins, cost of goods sold, etc.), these are very basic concepts. Get familiar with them. It will make you a better lawyer and a better salesman.
What if the client is dead in the wrong? He is being sued for $18,000 on an account, and there is no question that he owes it. He is defenseless. But he came to you, did he not? Why? Is he needing more time? A payment plan? You can help with these.
Here's the deal. You know where this is going. I don't really need to spell it out. It's pretty clear. If you need some time, I can buy you some time. What kind of time do you need? How about a payment plan? I bet I can get them to entertain it. What's in your budget? Keep this in mind: Lump sums often talk. Sometimes, your best deal comes from buying yourself out for a single, one-time payment. We can tell them, 'It's this or nothing. Good luck. My client's judgment-proof. You'll have to stand in line behind the other 20 creditors in front of you.' What are your thoughts here?
Note that the sample sales pitches are just that - samples. They give you a pretty good idea of how to deal with uncomfortable issues while maximizing the odds of getting what you want. You know which subjects make you uncomfortable. Practice to yourself and then, put your practice to the test.
Let us say you have never had a trial or even presented a motion in a real court in front of a real judge. How about this question? (You know it is coming) "How many trials have you had?" This is a toughie. But you can be prepared. It is coming. Practice. For what it is worth, there is not an experienced trial attorney, dead or alive, who was immune from this question when he or she was a baby lawyer like you. We have all endured it. Just practice your pitch while you grow your experience. Then, before long, you will have some good fish stories to brag about during client interviews.
Finally, get some trial experience on smaller cases. Take some small claims court stuff. Win or lose, you need to get in front of a jury and get comfortable. The first will make you tremble. After the third time, it is old-hat. Try to pick cases where you feel you have a solid chance. Do not experiment by trying a case where you know you are going to get pounded. All this does it accustom you to expecting to lose. You will have plenty of cases where you can win, and those are the skills you need to hone - skills on how to win - not on how to lose gracefully.
Juries, by the way, are very much interested in justice. They do not hold a baby lawyer's obvious inexperience against the client's case. In fact, sometimes, juror sympathy for a shaking baby lawyer gives you a handicap. They almost want to cry like mothers for that sweet, young attorney out there swimming alone among that old, nasty shark the next table over.
© 2015, Jeff M