Over the holidays, I finally got around to reading Bad Blood, the story of the rise and fall of the blood testing startup Theranos and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, written by the Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, John Carreyrou, who broke the story that led to the company’s downfall. I cannot recommend the book more highly. However, you’re not here for book reviews, so let’s move on.
In a recent transaction that I worked on – obviously, I can’t give too much detail to protect client confidentiality – I noticed a weird dynamic. In a typical negotiation, when the lawyers from each side are speaking without the principals present, there is some degree of emotional detachment from the ultimate outcome, even though each attorney knows his or her role is to represent the client’s interest. Lawyers will say, for example, that it’s not worth continuing to argue about a particular bone of contention because it is a “business issue” that needs to be worked out by the principals. However, in this transaction, the other attorney, though he was unfailingly polite and even-keeled, would make fairly routine requests from our side seem thoroughly unreasonable, putting me on the defensive.
Carolyn Elefant, writing in Above the Law, takes to task those solo lawyers who, to use her phrase, “play the solo card” by using their firm’s smallness as an excuse for sub-standard service. I don’t know enough to weigh in on the specific case that triggered her piece, a solo attorney who tried to excuse a late filing by citing Microsoft Word technical issues. There certainly have been large firms that have tried to make excuses as a result of their network crashing or the like. However, I completely agree with Elefant’s overarching point that small firms should not assume that their clients and others will accept second-class service just because of the size of the firm.
When I am assisting a client on a matter, and the help of a legal specialist is needed (tax, above all else, but many other areas as well), the client will often be reluctant to loop in the other attorneys and will urge me to handle it. While I’d like to think that this is a reflection of the client’s respect for my abilities, I’m sure it’s in part based on a fear that bringing on another attorney will drive up legal costs. I don’t think this is necessarily the case, and in any event, scrimping on getting the right advice can create substantive issues that cost far more in the long run.
When I start a new client relationship, the referral source introduces me to the potential client, usually by email, and then I have an initial call or meeting with the potential client. I don’t require that a fee be paid before I agree to proceed with this background consultation. It’s only after the meeting where we make engagement arrangements if there is a need to do so. Many attorneys, however, feel strongly that this is a bad policy and insist that even the initial meeting is on the clock. Of course, attorneys can feel free to set whatever ground rules they want, as long as they’re properly communicated in advance. There may be practice areas where immediate charging makes sense, but for what I do, I think this sort of policy reveals a mindset about the attorney that I try to avoid.