Making Your Law Office Client-Friendly

  • July 17, 2014
  • Ann Macaulay

How effective is your law firm at welcoming clients? Is your office more likely to make them feel at home or scare them away? We look at several ways you can make your office friendlier and more comfortable for the most important people at your firm — your clients.

The design and layout of your law office, the amenities you offer and how your clients are treated once they arrive speak volumes about your firm. There are many ways to help your firm appeal to clients. By putting even a small amount of time and effort into making your office more welcoming, you can make existing clients happy. Their positive experiences can spread by word of mouth to new clients.

If you have a big budget, as is the case with many large firms, you can afford extras like private client rooms and upscale entertaining. However, even if your firm is small or medium-sized, there are ways to make clients feel at ease. Little things can go a long way towards welcoming clients and making them comfortable — and they don’t have to break the bank.

Simple touches, like fresh flowers in the reception area or offering snacks and fresh coffee, can make clients feel comfortable, while things like dust bunnies floating by or shabby, threadbare couches in the reception area can be an instant turn-off.

What can you do to give clients a good first impression? “Have the right staff to welcome your guests,” says Pierre Brais, a designer and project director at design firm lemay associés in Montreal, who has advised many law firms on design issues over the years.

“Lawyers tend to want to take good care of their clients, and most want to make them feel comfortable and welcome.” Give your offices “a bit of window, a bit of light, a bit of lighting.” At a minimum, he advises, offer clients a small corner at the firm where they can work, use the phone, and relax. Provide a spot where they can store their suitcase if they’ve travelled from out of town. “It’s not that complicated,” says Brais.

Look Inward First

The signals you send your clients can make or break the relationship. The way you speak to and treat your clients sets the tone of your relationship and it can be one of the most important and effective ways to make your firm a client-friendly place. Give each client your full attention. Most lawyers prefer to come to the reception area personally to greet clients and escort them to an office or meeting room. Taking this hands-on approach right from the beginning of your business relationship sends a strong signal that you care.

Do you regularly take calls while you’re meeting with clients? If you ask the receptionist to hold all your calls while you’re busy with a client, it’s clear that your client knows how important he or she is to you. Even when you’re speaking with a client on the phone, don’t put him or her on hold while taking calls from others.

Make it clear that you’re happy to take clients’ calls and e-mails. Return their calls as soon as possible, and if you can’t, have your assistant call to set up a phone appointment right away. Reserving time with them tells them how important they are to you.

The Power of Design

The overall look and feel of a firm’s offices conveys a strong message to clients. Is your firm traditional or modern? Is it open and airy or stuffy and dark?

If you’re thinking of renovating your office space, take some advice from those who have been through it — get a designer, plan well in advance, and avoid making last-minute changes. Changing your mind will cause a lot of disruption to the project and cost you a lot more in the end. Figure out what your firm’s functions are and plan the office around them. Whether you need a lot of storage or boardrooms of varying sizes to accommodate clients, work those factors into your plans first.

Ian Roland, a name partner at 22-lawyer firm Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP in Toronto, advises lawyers to do a lot of thinking and designing before construction starts. “You need help,” he says. “Get somebody who knows what they’re doing in legal office design. It’s money well-spent to get help at the outset.”

He adds that there are typically two questions a designer will ask up front: what sort of image do you want to portray and what is your budget? When he and his partners left the large firm setting five years ago to create their own firm, Roland says, “We wanted something different than the stuffy, corporate look—something cleaner, more accessible to modest clients. A younger, fresher, contemporary image.”

One of the things Roland and his partners wanted to convey to clients was that the firm consists of a collegial group of lawyers who all share the same perspective. To portray a sense of democracy, all the firm’s offices are the same size and everyone uses the same Italian modular furniture. Overall, Roland describes his firm’s look as elegant but spare, “not a typical law firm look.” For example, the floors are concrete, and there are sliding doors instead of hinged ones. As Roland points out, “you gain efficiency of space by not having doors on hinges.” And efficient use of space is important from a business perspective, since it’s such a large part of operating costs.

“Our institutional clients are very concerned about cost,” says Roland. “They’re budget-conscious about who they retain and how they spend their money so we didn’t want anything opulent. We wanted to reflect the fact that we’re careful with our money as we’re careful with their money.”

Movable walls between boardrooms can be ideal for meetings of variable sizes, but expect a certain lack of privacy. One of the new features that Paliare Roland will add to its upcoming expansion is at least one boardroom that has solid walls and soundproofing. The firm’s lawyers have discovered that even with retrofitting movable walls can’t be made as soundproof as a fixed wall. “It’s not possible,” says Roland. And sometimes, your clients need a great deal of privacy.

Designer Brais says that many Canadian law firms tend to be conservative and “afraid to look outlandish.” If they’re serious about spending money on design and on their clients’ comfort, firms must “accept that you need qualified staff to make it work and make it look the best.”

A Case Study in Cutting-Edge

McCarthy Tétrault LLP completed a massive, multi-million-dollar redesign of its Montreal office earlier this year. In addition to the move to a new building and totally revamped staff offices, the firm created a huge conference centre for clients on the 25th floor of le Mille de la Gauchetière, complete with a variety of meeting rooms and offices that overlook sweeping views of the St. Lawrence River.

Chief administrative officer Jacques Bisson, who headed the design team at McCarthy Tétrault, visited several law firms in the U.S. and England during the planning stages in order to take a look at cutting-edge law firm designs. “We wanted to do something a bit different than what we have seen in Canada so far.”

The firm created a variety of spaces to accommodate clients, who stay only on the conference floor when they’re visiting. In addition to conference rooms, there are two lounges, several visitor offices and informal meeting rooms, and two telephone rooms. Even the reception area has separate seating areas.

“Better technology for our clients was a must,” says Bisson. The firm spent more than a million dollars on AV equipment alone. Clients have access to wireless hotspots, computers, a printer, photocopier, and fax machine.

The firm has a commercial kitchen and a chef on staff. In addition, contracted caterers can set up food in a separate room.

Lighting was a big priority for the firm. The east and west walls are glass, which adds a lot of natural light to the core of the floor. There are two lounges for clients made of opaque glass, which lets light come in while providing privacy.

Light fixtures were carefully thought out. Brais points out that although the lighting industry has “exploded” with new products in other countries, office space in Canada normally includes lighting fixtures that are now obsolete. McCarthy Tétrault decided to start from scratch and buy new lighting for the entire office. “Don’t blare the fluorescent lighting,” advises Brais. “Provide comfortable, more intimate lighting…that has an enormous influence on how people feel. It’s a neglected part of design in Canada.”

The Not-So-Little Things

Location and Signs

A good location for your firm is gold, but its value drops considerably if clients can’t find the office easily. Do you have signs in the lobby? Is your office up a rickety set of stairs or down a long, badly lit hallway? Can clients even find the place? Even if the building is easy enough to find, getting to a specific office can be a challenge — in some lobbies, it’s hard to track down the building directory. When you’re speaking to a prospective client on the phone, give clear verbal directions or send them a map via e-mail. That way you won’t waste their valuable time — or yours if they end up being late for an appointment.

Reception Area

First impressions count. People make decisions about people or situations instantaneously, within seconds of a new encounter, according to Malcolm Gladwell in his 2005 book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. “Snap judgments are, first of all, enormously quick: they rely on the thinnest slices of experience.”

What impression does your lobby give clients when they first walk through the door? Is the furniture shabby? Does it say “tidy and professional” or does it scream “cheap and unappealing”? The look and feel of your reception area offers the perfect opportunity to make a good first impression on clients. After all, you’ve got a captive audience as soon as they walk through the door and before they’re greeted. The right image can sell your firm to prospective clients—or turn them away. Make sure the furniture is comfortable and presentable and that the atmosphere is pleasant.


Your receptionist is your clients’ first point of contact with the firm. Does he or she greet clients politely, professionally, and with respect? Does he chat endlessly to friends on the phone? Does she leave clients standing around for any length of time? Treat your clients as you would treat guests coming into your home — usher them to a seat and offer them drinks or snacks.

Make sure the receptionist is informed about lawyers’ whereabouts. “We have a manual of things to say on the phone and in person,” says David Varty at Varty & Company in Vancouver. As he points out, “some untrained receptionist might say ‘oh, he usually gets in around 10:30 or he takes off afternoons for golf.’ That’s not the sort of thing you want anyone to say.” Ensure that the person answering the phone asks if he or she can put a caller on hold. A terse “please hold” is impersonal and offputting.

Business Centre

It’s not a new idea — many law firms have been trying to group their conferencing facilities for clients in one space for years. But firms, especially the larger ones, are making them bigger and providing more amenities for clients. Clifford Chance’s million-square-foot headquarters at Canary Wharf in London goes all out, offering clients a well-being centre, reading rooms, a dining room, and a hospitality lounge with a bar, a library, showers, and even a prayer room.

McCarthy Tétrault’s recent redesign of its Montreal office included a full floor of space specifically devoted to use by clients. “Having all the clients on one floor provides you the capabilitiy to offer services that you wouldn’t be able to offer otherwise,” says Bisson. The main conference room is comprised of five rooms divided by four walls that can be opened or closed depending on the space that’s needed. It can accommodate as many as 300 people in a classroom set-up or 160 at a dinner event with tables for eight. The room doubles as a videoconferencing room with two screens, a projector and a camera.

Lawyers are moving away from meeting clients in their own offices. The so-called “front-end” of an office is where lawyers meet with clients, and larger firms typically have several boardrooms of various sizes to accommodate meetings. “Over my career, we’ve gone from meeting clients in our offices to meeting clients in boardrooms,” says Ian Roland. “Offices to a very large extent are for workspace and for meeting amongst ourselves.”

Wireless Access

With the proliferation of laptop computers, it’s becoming more common for firms to offer clients wireless Internet hotspots. Roland says his firm plans to implement wireless access for clients in its upcoming expansion. “We’re going to build that in. A couple of little client rooms will have that so that clients can actually have some privacy.”

Designated Client Parking Spots

Depending on your location and situation, think about providing client parking spaces in the closest lot that say “Reserved for clients of [your firm name].” It may be costly, but it can create an incredible amount of goodwill — and it’s an excellent way to advertise your firm’s services to a broader market.


We’ve all been there — reception areas that time forgot. Magazines date back months or years, day-old newspapers are ripped apart, re-folded like badly done origami, and scattered about. Granted, this tends to happen more often in doctors’ waiting rooms, but it’s something for lawyers to be mindful of as well. If clients absolutely have to wait in the reception area, make an effort to provide a daily newspaper and some up-to-date magazines. Have your receptionist tidy up reading material after it’s been read and before other clients visit. If reading material gets damaged, get rid of it. These are small things that don’t require a lot of effort, but they do get noticed.

Firm Brochures/Literature

Use the (hopefully short) time clients spend in your reception area as a marketing opportunity. Display firm brochures, annual reports and other literature, as well as lawyers’ business cards, on a table. This doesn’t have to be an in-your-face advertising attempt, but subtly done it can be an effective way to let clients know a bit of background information about the firm, what you’ve accomplished and the services you offer.

Coffee and More

There’s nothing like a stale, lukewarm cup of coffee to tell clients “we don’t care.” If you offer coffee to guests, ensure that a fresh pot is available. If you offer a soft drink, serve it in a glass with ice. Some firms provide cookies and other snacks, such as chocolate or fruit — just make sure that whatever you offer is reasonably fresh. Most people would agree that it’s better to provide no food at all than something that’s stale and unappetizing.

Cleanliness and Organization

A tidy, organized office sends a big message. When your clients come into your law office, what do they see? Is it a rabbit’s warren of cluttered offices surrounded by bankers’ boxes of files? The management of paper files is a common challenge for law firms. Ian Roland advises lawyers who are planning a new firm design to think about the huge number of files that they may be collecting.

Boxes of paper can clutter the firm’s halls and offices and detract from a clean, organized look. Storing it offsite is one good option, as long as it’s close enough that it’s easily accessible. An office redesign can also be the ideal time to finally move to a paperless system for storing files. “Focus on what systems you need in place to keep trying to prevent the paper from becoming overwhelming,” says Roland.

Accessibility to Persons with Disabilities

When you’re looking for office space, think about finding an office that will make it easier for people with disabilities to get to you. It makes good sense from a business perspective to be able to offer your services to everyone, including those with disabilities. Some things to look for that will help make a law office accessible are parking for disabled persons close by, a wheelchair accessible entrance, barrier-free washrooms and pathways, and a braille elevator with lowered buttons.


What’s hanging on your walls? Do you have prints or do you have the budget for original art? Art is so subjective that it can be hard to choose just the right piece. Most firms like to play it safe and stick with non-controversial artwork. Choose carefully — some art can offend a client’s sensibilities.

Plants/Floral Arrangements

Flowers can add a warm and welcoming dash of colour and life to a reception area. Add a brightly flowering plant to cheer things up. If you choose cut flowers, make sure they’re changed once a week. You don’t need to spend a fortune on plants and they can make a real difference. Have someone responsible for looking after them — a lifeless plant can send a strong negative signal.

Moot Court

If you have the space, set up a moot court, complete with raised platform and judge’s bench. Clients who have never set foot in a courtroom can better visualize what to expect when they’re about to give testimony in court. The room comes complete with AV equipment for filming witnesses and then watching the results.

Food and Drink

Designer Brais has seen several law firms that have wine cellars and chefs on staff. “It’s very common in Washington and New York City for a law firm to run a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week restaurant or cafeteria, complete with the wine cellar and the wine steward…. They set up big buffets with the chef in the white hat at lunch and people came out of the conference rooms to help themselves to the food. It’s a big production.”

Ann Macaulay is a Toronto-based freelance legal affairs writer.