Whether your legal secretary is a marketing asset
or liability depends mostly on you
Except for the part about my lacerating my tongue, the
following story is mostly true:
was having a bad day.
and unprepared for a hearing that morning, he’d incurred the wrath of the judge,
who took it out on Ken’s client.
Another client, fed up with Ken not returning her phone calls, had just picked
up her file en route to an appointment with her new lawyer.
thirds of his accounts receivable were in the 90-day-plus category, one of which
had been on the books for so long that he had to do his collecting in probate
had been weeks since he’d received a referral from anyone except sadistic
attorneys whose mission statements include: If Someone Comes To Me With No
Money, No Case or No Address, I Will Send Him or Her to Ken.
partners had just informed him that he – and he alone – wouldn’t be getting a
draw for the next few months.
now he had to put up with me, my laptop, PowerPoint presentation and laser
pointer enumerating all the uncompleted tasks in his marketing plan.
Staring longingly at the bottle of Cuervo 1800 on his credenza, Ken seemed to
long for a Faustian bargain to deliver him from his plight. Finally, he said,
"You know, sometimes I think I’m my own worst enemy."
Clearly, he needed a lift, and I was just the guy to give it to him.
come on, Ken, don’t be so hard on yourself. As your enemies go, you’re probably
no worse than second worst."
"Absolutely," I assured him, clapping him on the back and leading him over to
his office door, which was slightly ajar. "Your worst enemy is right outside
your door here."
heads vertically aligned, we peered through the narrow opening. He gasped.
he whispered. "You can’t mean Constance."
Ken," I said. "Watch."
"Constance" was on the phone with a client who was doing most of the talking.
Her patience obviously wearing thin, Constance was performing a pantomime of an angry caller, making flapping jaw gestures with the hand that
wasn’t full of Cheetos. Her performance might have inflicted little immediate
damage on Ken’s practice, but for the two slack-jawed clients-in-waiting who
comprised her audience.
in the world is she doing?" Ken whispered.
"She’s working, Ken," I said. "Haven’t you ever noticed this before? How long
has she been with you, anyway?"
"Three years, but I had no idea ... and why didn’t she tell me those clients are
that moment the caller must have stopped for a breath, because Constance took
charge of the conversation.
"Well, he can’t talk to you right now. He’s working on something. And he has
important clients waiting to see him. I don’t know. What’s your number. What?
No. I don’t know when he’ll be able to get back to you. (Pause) What? Well, you
know, like, that’s your choice and" – the phone rings – "wait, I’m going to put
you on hold now."
Instead of answering the other line, she stood up, hissed something about "these
damn people," and stomped off toward the kitchen.
sprang abruptly from his crouched position, the top of his head opening a large
gash in my chin, my upper and lower incisors converging sharply on the tip of my
I rifled through his desk drawers, looking for something to stanch the flow of
blood and wondering if my tongue had tied its last cherry stem in a knot, he
paced frantically around his office.
is terrible. What can I do? I can’t fire her – then I’d have to train somebody
oo me, Kem," I said, blotting the tears from my eyes, "Laby Macbeff wou’ be
be’er ‘an ‘ak woma’. You haf oo kalk koo huh."
"’Talk to her?’ Look, you’ve tried to get me to do some crazy things, but I am
not going to do that. She might quit!"
I said. "Iss you’ prakiss."
Hands of Fate
Fortunately for most attorneys and legal secretaries
(and the population at large), Constance is an exception. But no
matter how successful you are in attracting new clients, and no matter how
caring and sensitive you are to their needs, if you ignore the role of your
secretary or receptionist in client relations, you’re tempting the hands of
Imagine that you’ve been courting a prospective business client for several
months. You’ve done everything right: researched the company and its legal
needs, taken the CEO to a Diamondbacks game (in San Francisco), written big
checks to his favorite charities, changed your political affiliation and church
membership so he’d know you’re his kind of people, and helped him clean out his
morning, all of your schmoozing and bootlicking pays off: The CEO calls.
Unfortunately for you, you never bothered to tell your secretary that you were
courting this guy. So instead of interrupting your debate with a well-read clerk
over which of Tom Clancy’s books was his best, she takes a message. And then you
go to lunch. And then to court. And by the time you get his message and
breathlessly return his call, he’s decided to use that other lawyer who did such
a nice job waxing Mrs. CEO’s Porsche last weekend.
the interest of self preservation, let me emphasize, con mólto passióne,
that this is not an indictment of secretaries and receptionists. Rather, these
more-or-less hypothetical anecdotes are offered as a warning to attorneys not to
view their secretaries merely as organic extensions of their computer and phone.
secretary can almost certainly do more to support your practice than type your
documents, take calls, manage your calendar and pick up your dry cleaning. She
can be a valuable partner with you in building your practice, if you’ll just
take the time to involve her more in the strategic side of things.
and your secretary should meet at least once a week to keep each other current
on a whole slew of important topics: new clients, important clients, problem
clients, important items on your calendar, your work priorities for the week,
complaints and compliments from clients, prospective clients and the things
you’re doing to attract their business, appropriate thanks to recent referral
sources, other client development projects, what she’s doing well and could be doing better, and what you could do to help her be more effective in
Role in Client Development
Here’s how your secretary can help you in your client development efforts. She
Solicit client feedback – Are you happy with
our service? Is there anything you’d like us to do differently? Is there
some way we could serve you better? – and tell you what she learns ... good
Thank critical clients for their comments and tell you about them as soon as
you have a free moment. She should also feel free to suggest how you might
Help exceed clients’ expectations, by underpromising and overdelivering.
Always find out who referred clients and remind you to thank your referral
Familiarize herself with the expertise of other members of your firm and
make effective internal referrals if you’re not available to speak with a
prospective client whose needs are outside your practice area.
tenacious in reminding you to return phone calls.
Always sound pleasant on the phone and thank everyone – clients, prospects,
adverse parties, opposing counsel, your marketing consultant, you name it –
prepared to describe your practice to others – accurately, thoroughly, and
able to describe to others all of your firm’s major services.
your supervisory role, keep a sharp ear for indelicate candor, such as:
"Are you kidding? It's only 9:30."
"He’s still at lunch."
"He doesn’t want to talk to you."
"He’s reading the newspaper."
"He’s in the bathroom."
"This is his golf day. You must be new."
"He's getting his massage."
"He’s practicing his putting."
"He’s fighting with his wife."
Obviously, discretion isn’t the only trait of a good secretary or receptionist.
She should also exhibit:
sensitivity to the emotional conditions of clients
cheerfulness and warmth in greeting clients
the ability to ask clients to fill out an intake form
without making them think they’re at a doctor’s office
the ability to take accurate, complete phone messages
that convey the caller’s sense of urgency
restraint in badmouthing you or your clients in the
presence of clients (or, for that matter, anyone else)
the right balance of familiarity with, and professional distance from, your
professional manner and appearance.
ability to assess your secretary’s work habits and your willingness to
appropriately praise and reprimand her are two of the cornerstones of being a
good supervisor. More important, though, is allowing your secretary and other
support staff to be a functioning and contributing part of your practice and the
process by which you hope to develop it.
axiom of leadership is, "People tend to support that which they helped create."
Give your staff creative input into your practice, and the resulting support
they give you just might make growing your practice – and managing your staff –
more productive and enjoyable.