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Getting Past Fired

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This post is part of the MyShingle Solos summer series which will run between June 17 and July 3, 2014. 

denisenichols This post is written by MyShingle Guest Blogger Denise Nichols

For my second contribution to the MyShingle Solos summer series, I was planning to share my story of returning to law school after a 20 year career in the music industry.  But something happened this week that caused me to rethink the direction of this blog.   For the first time in my four years of practicing law, a client fired me and (**gasp**) it was my fault and easily avoidable.

In my area of practice (transactional entertainment law) it is not entirely foreign for a client to use attorney A’s services one time, and attorney B’s services the next time. It may be that the client prefers the prestige of a “name” firm or attorney (and the client is at a point in their business or career where hiring a prestigious firm or attorney is feasible), or that attorney A does not possess the necessary knowledge and skill to assist the client. I lost a client this week for neither of these reasons; I simply procrastinated my way to being fired.

The matter for which this particular client sought my services required that I do some research (though it was still solidly within my “wheelhouse”), and I told myself that because it was going to take additional time, I needed to finalize the other matters on my desk and/or wait until I could block enough time to dedicate to this matter.   As anyone who is self-employed knows, your workload ebbs and flows.  Recently – fortunately – I have been in a “flow.”   In fact, my firing could be viewed as timely – I am in the process of forming an of-counsel relationship with an attorney to help with the overflow; and if I had any doubt about doing this, it is now gone.  So, was I busy?  Absolutely.  Extremely so.  But even I don’t buy that excuse.  I procrastinated and I was unresponsive, and I’m not exactly sure why.  My actions essentially “told” my client that they were not important – a client relations cardinal sin.  Simply put, I treated my client disrespectfully.

As I often do when confronted with a problem or crisis, I searched the Internet, Googling phrases such as “why clients fire attorneys” and “attorney client relationship problems,” and found a plethora of information – articles, blogs, and lists … lots and lots of lists (and I have a proclivity for lists).  Topping many of these lists was procrastination and/or unresponsiveness, or some variation thereof.  Clearly, I wasn’t facing this issue alone.  But why?  What is it about the practice of law that makes an otherwise punctual and communicative person go MIA?   To attempt an answer, I continued my unscientific Internet (re)search, and distilled the information to (what else?) a list.  Here are the top five reasons I believe attorneys are sometimes unresponsive and have a tendency towards procrastination:

  1. As Type A personalities, we don’t want to admit that we are overwhelmed and can’t do it all ourselves.
  2. We have put off doing what the client needs for so long that we know we should reach out to see whether they still want us to handle the matter, but we are too embarrassed to do so.
  3. We don’t like to ask others for help for fear it will be perceived as a weakness.
  4. We did not take thorough notes during the client meeting, and now we don’t recall some of the details necessary to proceed (so maybe if we wait long enough, we’ll remember?).
  5. We are afraid our clients will discover that we are not as smart as the other attorneys in the (hypothetical) room.  DISCLAIMER:  The above list is based solely on my own experiences, and is not intended to apply to all lawyers everywhere.

Being fired this week was a wake-up call.  Without my clients, I do not have a law practice.  And because most of my business is referral based, it is likely I lost not only one client, but other clients to whom I may have been referred. The most difficult aspect was acknowledging that I deserved to be fired – and that I would have done the same thing had I been in my client’s shoes.  Once I recovered from the initial shock and bruised ego, I started to consider what should have been done differently – and what I would do differently in the future, which naturally led to … ANOTHER LIST:

The Five Practices of Client Relations 

  1. Practice Honesty:  I often underestimate the time it will take to provide the services the client needs.   This stems from my concern that if I don’t assure the client that I am able to meet their expectations, someone else will. As I proved this week, there are worse ways – and reasons – to lose a client.
  2. Practice Better Listening:  Pay attention to not only what the client says, but what they don’t say.  Their choice of words, body language and tone of voice are equally important communications. Beware of making assumptions or jumping to conclusions too quickly.
  3. Practice Responsiveness:   Communicate – consistently and considerately.  Starting immediately, everyone who contacts my office will receive a response within 24 hours.
  4. Practice Follow-Through:  If you promise it, do it.  If you can’t do it (or if you are not sure you can), don’t promise it.   No exceptions.
  5. Practice Appreciation: Thank the client – for their business, their confidence, their referrals, and even their timely payments – but do so with sincerity. Clients can quickly discern whether or not the “thank you” is sincere.

Chances are good that I will fall short of adhering to The Five Practices of Client Relations day in and day out.  It is also likely that this will not be last time I am fired by a client.  However, I am choosing to view this event as a reminder of the importance of always treating everyone – staff, other attorneys, and especially clients – with the utmost respect.

The Primacy Firm is a boutique entertainment law firm that caters to the Nashville creative community.  Founded in 2010 by  music industry veteran, Denise Nichols, the firm focuses on assisting creative individuals and small businesses navigate the constantly-changing legal landscape of the entertainment industry.

  • Bill

    Always a sobering experience. Setting a realistic deadline is critical for client satisfaction. And, if it is going to take longer than planned, letting the client know as early as possible goes a long way. (This is also a critical skill for associates in large firms. I used to hammer the point home to my associates that I much preferred them meeting a realistic timeline that they set, rather than be late, or turn in substandard work, on an overly aggressive schedule.) A big part of doing this is figuring out how time critical the work product is to the client. If they need something by the end of next week, the “wow” factor of promising it in two days isn’t worth the downside of not meeting the two day turnaround. They won’t remember that they really don’t need it for 10 days; they will remember that you were late with the deadline you set.

  • Stephen Corby

    I have done some of the same exact things you have mentioned and it is a relief to hear that someone else can occasionally make the same mistakes. The “hypothetical lawyer” and the fact that we can be too embarrassed to call someone back or admit a mistake is something we can all struggle with. Thank you for the fantastic post!

  • Denise Nichols

    It was sobering, you are right. I appreciate the feedback and the suggestions. Because I started my own practice right out of law school, I never had the benefit of someone like you teaching me the do’s and don’ts. This situation will be permanently planted in the “don’t” category.

  • Denise Nichols

    Thanks, Stephen. I was also relieved when I found the info noted in my post and realized that there are other lawyers struggling with similar issues. I think it is helpful for solos / small firms to provide peer to peer feedback and mentoring to one another. Reminds us we’re not alone!

  • Paul Spitz

    Working for an established firm after law school is no guarantee that you’ll learn how to serve clients in a timely manner. Partners and senior associates routinely leave a project sitting around for two weeks, before dumping it on the junior associate on Friday afternoon with a Monday morning due date.

  • Bill

    Paul: couldn’t agree with you more. My observation, from 25 years in big firms (as both an associate and partner) is that the more successful partners (defined in many different ways) don’t manage like that. (There are exceptions, to be sure.) It burns out your team, impacts the quality of the work product, and the clients (most of whom now have large firm experience themselves) notice. And, when your team really does need to work over the weekend or late, the effort is much better when everyone knows this is task driven, not the partner being a nut. (And, most partners hate to see other partners managing like that–the atmosphere permeates the entire office and/or firm).

  • Kenny

    Denise, thank you for the excellent article. I was fired out of nowhere by a client recently. It was not a huge case but it really bummed me out. I found myself considering the same points you made… Did I procrastinate? Did I fail to properly communicate in a manner which managed client expectations? Did I fail to properly pinpoint the issue my clients wanted me to address? The answer to varying extents is probably “yes” to all. While the initial reaction is to blame the client for impatience and unrealistic expectations, ultimately I have to use it as a learning experience. Your article and the comments made me realize I’m not alone.

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