Hulcher & Hays, LLC, Client Development Consulting

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Celebrating 25 years in business, 1993-2018

Norm Hulcher    How To Market   Websites  •  Brochures    Tools  •  Advertising    Blog    Home



First Impressions

Bad staff work can cause clients to loathe you even before you deserve it

"You know what bothers me most about practicing law?"

Unaccustomed to such outbursts of attorney candor, I asked, "What’s that, Bland?"

"Every new client who comes to see me is in a foul mood, and I spend the first half of my initial consultations just trying to get people to act civil. I mean, the woman I saw just before lunch acted like she wanted to kill me when she walked in, and we’d never even met before."

"But Bland, you have a divorce and bankruptcy practice," I noted, deftly demonstrating my grasp of the obvious. "You’re not going to find many clients who feel like turning cartwheels in your office."

He shook his head. "Nah, that’s not it. It wasn’t this bad before I went out on my own. Listen, I want you to look into it for me."

"Look into it?"

"Yeah, you know, check around. See what the problem is."

I felt like a character in a Dashiell Hammett novel. "Okay, Bland, listen. I’ll nose around and see what I can find out. You’ll hear back from me in a few days …"

It was unseasonally warm in Phoenix, and the inside of my Avanti felt like a sauna. As I turned slowly onto Sixteenth Street, I cracked the driver’s side window, and the fresh air cleared my head.

What was it about Bland that got him off on the wrong foot? His deodorant? No, the Speed Stick seemed to be doing the job. His personality? No, he’s a decent enough guy and, anyway, he said that his woman client acted like she wanted to kill him when she walked in. So something was happening to those people before they ever got to Bland. But what? How could I find out? Then the light came on ...

* * * * *

Deirdre met me at my office door with the customary fistful of phone messages. Thomas, Getzoff & Cleveland needed a newsletter and website. Twist & Schaut wanted me to lecture their associates on cross-selling.

"Save ‘em," I said. "We’ve got a caper to crack."

I flipped my Rolodex to "Motley, Bland" and began dialing ...

Eight or nine rings were followed by a flat, stern voice. "Law offices, hold the line," she commanded. Two minutes of dead air, then: "Yes."

"Hello?" I said.


"Yes, I’d like to schedule an appointment with Mr. Motley, please."

"This is."

"Uh, my name is Hays."

More dead air. Thinking we’d been cut off, I was about to redial when suddenly a friendlier voice came on the line.

"Mr. Motley’s office. May I help you?"

I made an "appointment" for the following morning ...

* * * * *

The next day at 10:55 a.m. I walked into the waiting area of Bland N. Motley, Esq.

The receptionist was a disagreeable looking woman whose first career might have been serving as a correctional officer. She seemed to be studying a pile of papers. After standing in front of her for what seemed like several minutes without being acknowledged, I cleared my throat. She did not look up.


"Uh, Hays."

"Do you have an appointment?"


"I don’t show anything for Mays."


"Mmph." Her eyes never leaving her paperwork, she grabbed a beat-up clipboard and slapped it down on the counter. 

"Go sit over there and fill this out. Press hard, you’re making four copies. He’ll be with you in a while."

I noticed two people seated in the waiting area. "Are they here to see Mr. Motley, also?"

"Yes." She still hadn’t looked up.

"When were their appointments?"

"Ten and eleven."

"But my appointment’s at eleven."

"Small world."

"Do you think I’ll have to wait long?"

"I wouldn’t know."

I picked up the clipboard, took a seat and studied the intake sheet. It had all the warmth and brevity of a tax return. Thanks largely to Subsection K(13) – List the Names and Last Known Addresses of All Relatives, Living and Dead, Not Living With You – it took me about 25 minutes to complete the form. I returned it to the receptionist’s counter.

"How long do you think he’ll be?"

"I'm not your fortune teller."

"Could you ask someone?"

For the first time, she looked up at me. I wish she hadn’t.

Returning to my seat, I looked for something to read. The latest magazines were a Newsweek with David Koresh on the cover and a copy of Star, the first one I had ever seen outside the checkout line at Safeway. I picked the latter. By the time I finished "Headless Man Found in Topless Bar" it was nearly noon. I hadn’t seen Bland, but I knew he was there; his office was close enough to the waiting area that we could all hear him telling a client how everything they discussed would remain confidential and that the thing about the sheep wouldn't come up at the custody hearing.

The waiting area was less crowded now, Bland’s ten o'clock having pitched a fit before storming out, vowing to make it her life’s work to bad-mouth him to anyone who would listen and hoping that an incurable infection would be visited on the receptionist.

Halfway through "Dwarf Kidnaps Nun, Flees in UFO," I looked up to see Bland’s secretary enter the waiting area and announce to the remaining visitor, "Mr. Motley will see you now." The visitor frowned, shook her head, hissed "It's about time," picked up her purse and her box of Puffs and followed the legal secretary toward Bland’s office.

The receptionist’s phone rang. "Law offices. Hold the line ..."

Preventive Measures

If you think that this is cute fiction but it doesn’t apply to your office, think again. I've seen even the most august law firms occasionally entrust their reception area to staff who learned their people skills at the Department of Labor and their common sense from a myna bird.

(True story: A couple of years ago I was in the lobby of a big law firm that has clients that nearly every other firm in town would kill for. One such client – I recognized him from his photo on the cover of the Business Journal on the coffee table – asked the receptionist if someone could copy a document for him. Without saying a word, she picked up the phone, murmured something, hung up and said, "There's nobody here who can copy that for you right now." It was 2:00 in the afternoon, the place was crawling with people who looked as though they might be skilled in the operation of a copier, and at a glance the document appeared to be about two pages long. Before the mystified client could say, "But my company paid this firm $9 million in fees last year," she went on to advise him that – this is not a joke – there was an Alphagraphics just up the street.)

The professional detachment that lawyers invoke to shield themselves from their clients can contaminate a whole firm. As a result, your staff may view a client or prospect not as someone who will help make payroll but, rather, as an adverse party: one more file, one more headache, one more person to bitch at them. It’s little wonder, then, that first-time callers or visitors feel about as welcome as syphilis and, by the time you get them into your office, they’ve already decided they hate you.

Fortunately, most people’s expectations for law office courtesy and service are pretty low. Thanks to attorney jokes, popular mythology and bad experiences with other lawyers, many legal consumers go into a matter expecting to be ignored and jerked around.

Thus, it’s not hard to exceed their expectations. If your secretary ends a phone conversation by saying – like she means it – "Thank you for calling; we look forward to seeing you Friday," instead of "I’m going to hang up now," that can make a pretty good impression.

The goal is to make prospective clients say to themselves (and hopefully to others), "Hey, these people appreciate my business." Here are some easy ways to make that happen.

Be sensitive to the potential client’s mood. People generally don’t call law offices for a good time. They call because they’ve got a problem – often a big one. Regardless of their level of sophistication in using attorneys, the day they call for an appointment may be the worst day of their life. You and your staff need to be mindful of that and treat callers accordingly: with respect, patience and understanding.

Eavesdrop on your staff. To a caller, you and your secretary are one and the same, attitude-wise. If she’s rude or indifferent, then by extension so are you. If she’s patient and shows interest, the caller should assume that you’ll be that way, too. Listen to how your people handle phone calls. If a prospective client would be put off by their tone or attitude, it’s time to have a performance evaluation ... or get new people.

Confirm the appointment. If time allows, mail, fax or email a confirmation letter to first-time visitors. In addition to confirming the date and time, the letter can include:

  • directions to your office (helpful if the prospect is coming up from Gila Bend and thinks that "Central and Thomas" is the name of your firm);

  • information on where to park;

  • your web address;

  • a client information form.

Minimize "processing." Nobody likes to feel like they’re being processed (remember your last visit to a new doctor?). If you use a client information form, get it into your prospects’ hands, if you can, before they show up. This gives them the option of filling it out in advance, sparing them the awkwardness of completing forms in a crowded waiting area, and eliminating delays in the unlikely event that you are actually ready to see them when they arrive.

Mind your waiting area. You’ve been there: You’re at the dentist’s office, and while you’re waiting to let him try out his newest instruments of torture on you, you have to rummage through enough old magazines to clog a landfill just to find a four-month-old issue of People. Your lobby magazines should be up to date and appropriate to your practice area. If you have a commercial practice, keep only the most recent issue of the best business magazines and newspapers. (Alas, not all practice areas have companion publications; criminal attorneys will be hard-pressed to find recent editions of Cell Beautiful or Lethal Injection Quarterly.)

Another thing about your waiting area: It should be far enough away from conference rooms and attorneys’ offices to prevent visitors from overhearing confidential discussions and aggressive collection efforts. If space limitations render that suggestion impossible, equip your lobby with an expensive stereo and a bunch of Jimi Hendrix CDs.

And if the front desk is where employees congregate to gossip, complain about your clients and report on their latest Wal-Mart adventure – without regard to the presence of visitors – run 'em out of there. You shouldn't have to resort to physical force; planting a well-timed rumor concerning the presence of Krispy Kremes in some distant back-office locale will make them scurry like startled roaches, leaving your clients safely out of earshot.

Preserve their privacy. Waiting areas aren’t for everyone, especially people who’d rather not have everyone in town know they were there. ("Hey, Don, I saw your wife over at my divorce lawyer’s the other day. What was she doing, collecting for the United Way?") If someone’s coming in to discuss a sensitive matter, your secretary should ask if they would like any special arrangements for their visit (e.g., a private waiting area or a disguise).

Deal with delays. When you’re running behind schedule and you have people waiting to see you, don’t ignore them. If possible, take a break from what you’re doing, go to the waiting area and confess your sins. When you just can’t do that, send your secretary out to give them a periodic progress report. Remember: Your clients’ time is just as valuable to them as yours is to you. By making them cool their heels in the lobby while you do something else, your implied message is, "I’m important. You’re not. Live with it."


You probably can’t make your clients happy about needing an attorney. But by trying to make their initial contacts with you as pleasant as possible, you can make them feel good about choosing you to help them, and you can get your relationship off on the right foot.

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