How Lawyers Lose Big Clients—and Advice on How to Keep Yours

  • September 18, 2014
  • Christine Baker

After 17 years in the trenches as a litigator with a large firm, I moved to an in-house role two years ago. The transition to “client” was surprisingly difficult. And, I have to admit, in the process I lost some empathy for colleagues still on the front lines—especially those who seem to delight in making an in-house counsel’s life more difficult. Have I fired lawyers in the past two years? Yep. Have I been tempted to fire others? Absolutely. Here’s insight into what will get you fired—and some tips for continuing to get work.

  • Making Mistakes. Mistakes will not get you fired. But lying about your mistakes or trying to shift blame will. Either act will destroy the relationship—the first immediately, the second gradually. Clients recognize that even lawyers make mistakes and they respect the ones who can deliver a mea culpa with grace. However, it should definitely come with an advisement about how you have fixed the problem or intend to do so.

  • Treating the Client with Disrespect. This might seem like common sense. But it happens, surprisingly often. For example, I’ve had outside lawyers treat me like I somehow forgot what interrogatories and injunctions were once I moved in-house. I’ve also had lawyers tell me that they would rather do work for another client because it’s easier or more interesting or more challenging. I’ve even had a lawyer tell me he didn’t want our work because it wasn’t sufficiently “high end.” (That same lawyer recently called asking for work now that the market has dropped.) And “client” doesn’t just mean the in-house counsel. You should treat everyone at the company with courtesy and respect. Paralegals in particular often play a more significant role in-house than in private practice. Treat them well or pay the price.

  • Not Responding to Calls or E-mails. I’m almost embarrassed to include this one. However, believe it or not, it remains a problem. Clients understand that lawyers are sometimes on trial, or in depositions, or even on vacation. But you need a backup plan. Whether you respond after hours, have a colleague respond for you, or set up your voice mail and e-mail to say when you will respond and what to do in the event of an emergency, you do need to respond in a relatively timely way.

  • Disregarding the Importance of Prompt and Accurate Bills. I used to dislike billing. Now I detest reviewing and approving bills. You would think it would be easier. It’s not. You can, though, make it easier for clients by sending bills that are coherent and can be reviewed and approved as is. Treat your bills like any other written work product you send to a client, meaning they should make sense and be free of typos. And know this: Clients quickly come to understand which firms’ bills can be trusted. For those firms, I first look at the bottom line to make sure the total bill is reasonable, since I already know what work was done that month because those firms have kept me informed. For other law firms, every month I’m forced to go through each bill line by line—and I inevitably find time that was over-billed, or billed to the wrong matter, and descriptions of time that make no sense and require investigation. The first set of bills gets paid promptly. The second set gets shoved to the back corner of my desk, until some time for deeper inquiry opens up.

  • Overbilling. Price matters—especially in the current economy. In-house counsel are under a lot of pressure to cut outside legal spending and will pass that pressure on to their outside counsel. Show them that you are sensitive to their needs by giving discounts where appropriate and writing off time that was excessive—so they don’t have to do it. And keep the lines of communication open. If you expect a larger bill than usual, or if a matter is blowing up, give the client a heads up immediately so she’s not shocked when she gets the bill.

  • Failing to Keep the Client Informed. Clients most likely have more reporting requirements than you realize. One of the worst things you can do is surprise them with an unfavorable court decision or huge verdict. Again, you need to keep your clients in the loop! Do not make them read and interpret your bills to figure out the status of a matter. And do not make in-house look bad because you’ve given them no idea what is happening. Even if nothing is happening, send a short e-mail to say things are quiet or the next deadline isn’t for a couple of months.

Additional Advice

Along with the advice given on the preceding points, there are lots of other things you can do to make sure you continue getting work from your clients. Here are four essentials:

  • Make an effort to understand the client’s business. Although you are hired to provide legal advice, the best advice takes into consideration business needs.

  • Provide value. No matter what the type of work, make clients feel like they got more than their money’s worth. This means always staffing appropriately. It means always keeping the end goal in mind. And it even means knowing when you should tell them they would be better served by a different firm.

  • Treat your in-house counterpart as part of the legal team. Solicit his input. He may have dealt with a similar issue in a different jurisdiction.

  • Do whatever you can to make your client’s job easier.

Christine Baker is Senior Counsel, Litigation & Regulatory Affairs, for Realogy Corporation, based in Parsippany, NJ. This article was first published in Law Practice Magazine, 2009, 35: 6, p. 37. © 2009 American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.