First impressions

  • August 13, 2014
  • Susan Goldberg

"Keep a jar of candy on your desk." That's what one enterprising young Toronto lawyer advises her colleagues looking to make a good first impression on their clients.

And while jellybeans and licorice all-sorts won't win cases or close deals, they're an example of the little things that lawyers can do to leave clients with – in this case, literally – a good taste in their mouths.

First impressions play a key role in determining the nature of a lawyer's relationship with a potential client. In a mature and increasingly competitive legal market, the initial contacts between client and lawyer might just be the key factor in a client's decision to retain that lawyer or go choose another one.

One of the biggest mistakes lawyers can make, says Elizabeth Cordeau, a senior consultant at the legal consulting firm MarketForce in Edmonton, is to think that quality of work is what sets them apart from their competition.

"That's true to a certain extent," she notes. "But if you talk to executive counsel at a major corporation, they're going to say, 'All the lawyers I have are perfectly capable of doing the work. What's the difference?' The difference is those first impressions, the little things that lawyers often don't notice, but clients do."

Whether it's returning phone calls promptly, letting clients know when you'll be on vacation, having up-to-date magazines (and good coffee) in the reception area, or designing your stationery so that elderly clients can read the fine print, clients notice – and reward – lawyers' efforts to anticipate and react to their needs.

Here, lawyers and law practice consultants talk about how to create first impressions that will result in long-lasting lawyer-client relationships.

Your corporate identity
Lawyers can't afford to underestimate the visual as they think about first impressions. A law practice's online and printed communication materials - from business cards and Web sites to brochures and advertisements - form its corporate identity or brand as it's known in today's marketing language.

That brand has to convey an appropriate and distinctive message that sets the lawyer apart and carves out an identity. And it should be market-focused. An environmental law firm, for example, might use recycled paper stock and green, vegetable-based inks that might appeal to its preferred clientele.

Whatever the message, it should be professionally designed, clean, easy to remember and, most importantly, consistently applied. "One of the most amusing exercises I like to engage in," says Cordeau, "is to ask five different lawyers at the same firm for their business cards and see if they look the same. Too often, they don't."

Will inconsistency make or break a firm? No. But it will detract from its brand recognition. And ultimately, that will hurt a lawyer who wants to stand out from the competition.

Lawyers should also take into account their clients' needs when designing their visual identity. When the lawyers at the Orillia, Ontario, law firm of Zwicker, Evans & Lewis recently redesigned its letterhead, they realized the fine print was too small for their elderly clientele. So they went back to the drawing board.

"I have an estates practice, where there are lots of older people," says managing partner Milton Zwicker. "Well, fine print doesn't sit very well with them. So I check a little box on my file that says 'grey-design this product' if I realize that a client is having trouble with eyesight. It's so easy with technology to boost up the font from 12 to 14, without any effort."

Your Web site  
Web sites are no longer a frill, but a necessity for law practices. But Web sites don't have to be a necessary evil: they can be powerful tools for creating a good first impression to the Internet-savvy consumer, showcases for a firm's brainpower, quality of writing and successes.

Web sites have evolved from "brochures in cyberspace to client-interaction tools," says Paul Kuttner, client manager and director of practice development at Jaffe Associates in Toronto. Today, effective legal Web sites are interactive, easily navigable, and constantly updated. Content, not pretty graphics, is king.

"People are looking for the facts," says Kuttner. "They want to know what's in it for them as a client."

Many "lawyer bio" Web pages tell the reader when lawyers were called to the Bar, or list their professional associations. "That's irrelevant," Kuttner insists. "Clients want to know, 'Has a lawyer successfully handled cases like mine?'"

Therefore, the Web site is where a law practice provides information on its specialty areas, with client-focused lawyer biographies. Litigators might also consider providing links to case commentary and opinions, as well as reasons for judgement in their trial victories.

"What will it cost?" is another question that Internet consumers want answered. For firms that offer services on a flat-fee basis, a Website is a great place to post a schedule of fees.

Ottawa-based immigration law firm Cappelle Kane ( not only posts a fee schedule, but also offers a "Do I Qualify? (for immigration to Canada)" information page, along with an online personal information form that would-be immigrants can fill in and submit to get the process rolling. The form is a perfect example of the interactive nature of the Web, where clients don't simply read but actually use the site.

And then there's the add-on stuff: a firm's newsletters and other publications, recent events, job opportunities, a Client Bill of Rights, links to sites that will be of interest to the firm's clients.

A technology law practice, for example, might provide links to articles on conducting business in the high-tech world. "The goal is to make clients bookmark the site because they'll learn more about the law, not the law firm," says Cordeau.

Your telephone policy
"We make our first impression by being available," says Betsy Kane of Cappelle Kane. "We try to take each telephone call that comes to our office, as opposed to leaving people on voice mail. If they do leave a message, we're usually back to them within half an hour.

"If someone's looking for a lawyer and it's related to immigration, it's usually quite urgent," she adds. "If I can take that call, or take it ASAP, then I have that client."

Lawyers are notoriously bad at returning telephone calls. They're busy, harried people with demanding schedules. What Cappelle Kane's phone policy recognizes, however, is that clients' schedules are no less demanding, their needs no less urgent. That recognition translates into client satisfaction and an improved bottom line.

Lawyers should create protocols about how, and how soon, they will return telephone calls from would-be clients. Ideally, calls should be returned within 24 hours – if not by the lawyer herself, than by an assistant or colleague working on the file.

Lawyers who update their voice mail messages daily, with a standard greeting that's consistent across the practice, convey the sense that they're on top of the situation. When they're out of the office, lawyers should indicate when they'll be back, check their voice mail regularly – three or four times a day – and let callers know when they will be returning their calls.

And if a caller gets a recorded message, don't leave them stranded in voice-mail hell. Make sure that anyone calling into the firm can press zero and talk to a real live person.

Your reception area
"Never forget that when clients come to visit you, they have something on their minds, they're tense," says Montreal management consultant Liette Monast. "When a client enters your office, they should feel at home."

It's easy enough to give a receptionist a list of client names so that he or she can greet clients by name when they arrive. It's also easy to provide a good cup of coffee, served in nice china, and to provide interesting, up-to-date reading material for clients.

"I find that clients are absolutely hungry for information," says Zwicker. "In our reception areas in both offices, there's a stand with brochure after brochure of information. We have a hard time keeping that stocked."

When it comes to law office decor, the jury's still out on the fine line between success and opulence. Wood paneling and expensive artwork may be appropriate in some cases; high-powered practices, after all, need high-powered offices. In general, though, lawyers should decorate with an eye towards the clients it has – or hopes to attract.

No matter how welcoming or well-decorated a reception area is, however, no client will be happy about waiting there indefinitely. Lawyers need to respect their clients' schedules, and be on time for meetings.

Your first client meeting
By the time the client and lawyer finally meet, the client has already formed a pretty good opinion of the lawyer and his practice, even if the lawyer doesn't realize it. The face-to-face meeting , however, is still a key juncture in the relationship.

When people set out to buy legal services, observes Kuttner, they tend to go through two very different activities: finding and choosing. The former is a very rational, methodological experience: gathering referrals, making lists and telephone calls.

Choosing, on the other hand, "is totally irrational and based on an individual's preference," says Kuttner. "It's answering the question, 'Can I work with this person?' And that's where the first impressions come in, the chemistry, the art of dealing with people."

More often than not, the "choosing" will happen in the first face-to-face meeting between lawyer and potential client. That meeting, therefore, is crucial.

Monast likens it to a first date. "At that first meeting with someone new," she says, "you read between the lines to find out what stimulates that person, how they process information, what their values are. You need to built up a rapport before you can sell your services."

"Find out as much as you can about your potential client before the meeting," recommends Quebec City industrial psychologist Jacques Charuest. "If you have the luxury of being introduced by someone, quiz that person.

"Is the potential client very analytical, formal, informal?" Charuest suggests. "Do they like numbers and statistics? Are they very structured, or do they tend to ramble?"

If a lawyer can recognize and adjust to a client's communication styles – slowing down for a more contemplative person, speeding up and providing quick answers for more extroverted, active people – she will have a better chance of winning that client's confidence.

Initial client meetings don't have to take place in the lawyer's office. The parties might convene in a more comfortable setting, like a boardroom, away from the distractions of the phone and computer.

Or lawyers might consider meeting clients on their own turf. When Atlantic law firm McInnes Cooper conducted a client audit into how they could better serve their customers, they discovered that clients wanted their lawyers to visit more often.

"Our clients take a lot of pride in their businesses," says Halifax-based managing partner John Stringer, "and they want their professionals to come out and see them in action."

No matter where the initial meeting is held, Cordeau recommends keeping the numbers down. "Don't wolf-pack a file by having three lawyers sit in a room when only one needs to be there," she advises. "You can introduce other people, but the initial meeting should be one to one. Clients want to know that there will be one person in that firm who will be taking care of them."

All the experts agree on one thing: the most important thing a lawyer can do in the initial meeting is to listen. Carefully.

"Don't be so quick to talk about yourself," cautions Charuest. "Let the client speak first, and then ask questions. The meeting should focus on what the client needs, not what the lawyer can do."

The letter of retainer
You've done everything right so far: crafted a consistent, client-focused Website and corporate identity; returned calls promptly; had a stellar first meeting where you received your client promptly, listened carefully, and gained his or her initial trust and confidence. Your next step is to craft a letter of retainer (grey-designed, if necessary) on your new, professionally designed letterhead.

Imagine, then, your new client's horror upon receiving a letter that says, "You have retained us on X and Y, and here's what we're going to do if you don't pay us."

It happens. And it shouldn't. Letters of retainer are a great opportunity for a lawyers to demonstrate that he understands the issues involved and his clients' needs. Ideally, they should be sent out at the start of each new file, detailing steps to be taken and dates for future meetings.

Moreover, they're a chance to follow up on a great first impression, and nothing ruins that more than a terse, impersonal letter that focuses on money.

"If a client's first impression of a lawyer is formed at the lawyer's office, the second impression will usually be the letter documenting that meeting," says Judy Nyman, president of Toronto-based communications company Nyman Ink.

"If I get that letter in a plain envelope from Business Depot with a label stuck on it, I'm going to think it's a Mickey Mouse operation, even if I know they provide good service."

"Letters of retainer have to be client-friendly," says Cordeau. "They should thank clients for their business. It's important to be clear on fees, but fees shouldn't be the focus. Rather, they have to set out the legal issues involved and how the lawyer is going to help the client achieve his or her goals.

"They have to say, 'We appreciate that you've retained us, and, by the way, in Appendix D you'll find our payment policy."

The extras
When a fleet of Tall Ships sailed into Halifax Harbour last July, the clients at McInnes Cooper's local office had VIP seating for what proved to be the city's premiere summer attraction.

"Tens of thousands of people a day were on the waterfront, watching the ships," says Stringer. "Well, we have a very nice boardroom that overlooks the ocean, and we thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice if our clients could bring their families up, have a beer and a sandwich, and watch the ships in a very casual, comfortable atmosphere?' So we sent around an invitation. It was a great success."

The Tall Ships event is a perfect example of the kinds of things that lawyers and law firms can do to make a great first impression. Too often, clients visiting a firm for the first time are nervous or intimidated. Having them come by for a fun, casual event can break down barriers to future contact.

What first impressions really come down to, says Stringer, is continuing to find ways to make it easy for the firm's clients to interact with their lawyers.

"Making our facilities available means that people are more comfortable in their lawyers' offices," he says. "The more they get to know us here, the more at home they are at our offices, the more comfortable they will be calling their lawyers."

Susan Goldberg is a Toronto-based freelance writer.