A LITTLE FISH IN A BIG POND
A voice in your head says “Hey small fry, this pond is too big for you – who do you think you are trying to swim out here with the big fellas?” You do worry that you will be eaten alive by those sharks circling around your clients and your cases. Even though you’re about to sign a 5 year lease on office space, you have a line of credit for the hardware and software, the website is designed and cast out into the world wide web, insurance to protect against all imaginable calamities has been secured. Even though you even have a few clients who are not related to you. Those nagging doubts linger.
Fear not. Attention to detail and careful focus of limited resources will create a significant image, even if you’re just starting out.
Start with your clients and how they will see you. Take into account your area of law as well as the cultural norms and expectations of the clients you intend to attract to your practice - focus your resources there.
Think about the impression created when a potential client calls the office. Prospective clients expect to hear a live person answer your phone and announce the name of your firm. Many attorneys starting out wisely choose to spend their limited resources to hire a telephone receptionist. You can economize by sharing a receptionist with suitemates, and still have separate phone numbers. The receptionist should answer your line with the name of your firm, much preferred to the generic “law office” often heard when calling a small firm. If your target clientele includes a significant concentration of non-English speaking individuals, a bi-lingual receptionist will distinguish your firm from the others, and shows this client he is welcome and will be understood in your practice. Be sure the receptionist is clear, professional sounding and friendly. The receptionist should speak in complete sentences and not use the lazy and unpleasant technique of starting a sentence, forcing the caller to finish it: “You’re calling because…” Create a protocol for answering the telephone: “Law Office of Jane Smith, may I help you?” Do not leave to chance the form and content of these important client contacts.
In person, your receptionist should be dressed professionally and have nerves of steel to soothe any frustrated or impatient clients. Friendliness and a positive attitude go a long way to promoting your firm.
Also think about the message your clients will hear on your after-hours voicemail. Have someone with a professional voice (other than your own) record the message.
In the office, appearances count. Your office is often the first opportunity for a prospective client to size you up, and he will. Hang up your framed diplomas and awards – they mean a lot when someone is considering your qualifications. While the appearance of your office bears no correlation with your actual skills in the courtroom or negotiating a settlement, your surroundings should convey the message that you are qualified, competent and successful.
A business office in a commercial building creates a more solid appearance than a basement fix up. A sublet in a larger firm, even sharing a room to start, will save money, as long as you can meet clients in a conference room. The potential client’s expectations of a “law office” are met, and you don’t have to let on that your personal space is the little shoebox in the back. An office address on Park Avenue South is less costly and more impressive to clients than an office across from the New York County courts, and clients have no idea that most litigators are downtown.
You don’t need to have leather chairs and oak desks either. Simple and inexpensive furnishings, a few luxurious looking plants, and some nice light fixtures can work if you keep your office organized and uncluttered. Files dripping off your desk are disconcerting to a potential client. Order suggests control and competence. Also, it costs little to install a coffee maker and a water cooler. Your office will be more professional and welcoming if you take a moment to serve your client a refreshment.
The inside of your office interior might not be top priority for you if you are developing a criminal practice by way of court appointments on the 18b panel. A fancy waiting room and nice carpet in your office is not as essential since your clients will not be seeing your office right away. Put you money into your wardrobe and haircut – that’s what your clients will see first.
Or be creative - one tort attorney started his negligence practice with a fancy leased car and one good suit to sign clients up in their homes. The clients were pleased with the special service and did not know that the attorney’s office space was much more modest.
For most clients, a personal touch is priceless. Service is the cornerstone of the small business, whether you’re selling widgets or selling the services of a qualified attorney. Regular updates by phone and letter are more impressive and more important than expensive embossed stationery. Remind your potential clients that at your firm they will never get lost in the shuffle. In competing for business, small firm practitioners successfully play on the potential client’s fears that a big firm is impersonal and will not have much time for him. Small touches make you competitive with big firms in attracting and retaining clients.
Do you worry about being slapped around in the courthouse because you don’t have 122 names on the letterhead? Don’t be. What the court cares about is the quality of your work. No kidding! To be well received in the courthouse, learn how the Part to which your case is assigned operates. There is no excuse for ignorance and no substitute for preparing for the Part where your case will be heard. Under all circumstances, make sure your paperwork is excellent. Maybe the big boys can get by with cutting corners, but you can’t. Attention to detail is essential.
Here is the best-kept secret of all. This big pond is one of your greatest advantages when starting a practice. There are so many firms here in the Big Pond (a/k/a the Big Apple), that there is no way for the courts or your adversaries to know that yours is a new firm with limited resources. If you handle your cases well, your firm will be taken seriously. Indeed, the court and your adversaries will assume that they ought to know who you are, and will remember you favorably the next time.
Just like the court, your adversaries just cannot keep up with the comings and goings of law firms in the Big Pond. Take a lesson from the puffer fish on the Discovery Channel – use your professional polish and bravado to cut an impressive silhouette through meticulous case preparation and a good depth of knowledge in your area.
One of the favorite strategies of the old-timer is to make the new attorney feel like she does not know what she is talking about. You can identify this technique by any sentence that begins with “In my 35 years of practice I have never …” The bully is inevitably wrong, so don’t take the bait. This is a scare tactic that you just need to ignore, with “all due respect”. Inevitably, you will be proven right.
A large firm sometimes uses the strategy of papering you to death. If you find that your firm’s resources are being stretched too thinly, bring in another attorney or firm to help on the case. You will share your fee in this situation but you will win your case and the appreciation of your client.
There is no reason to feel like the teeny clown fish, too small and ill prepared for the deep waters. In the big pond, use its size to your advantage. Use your skills, intuition and bravado to cut an imposing figure just when you need it. With creativity, wit and preparation, you can hunt with the big fish from the first day out. Indeed, you may just find that the world is your oyster.