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Most of us are getting ready to embark on our annual campaigns of sending holiday cards and gifts — with the ulterior motive of generating business for ourselves in the upcoming year. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But as we send this season’s greetings, let’s also say “thank you” to those who have helped us throughout the year — not because it’s good for business, but because we mean it. Lawyers don’t typically say “thank you” to express gratitude. Many send clients thank-you notes after clients pay their bills because marketing pros say such notes encourage clients to promptly pay future bills. And referral fees — thank-yous sanctioned by our Code of Professional Responsibility — are really just incentives for attorneys to keep referring lucrative cases to one another. But not every contact in our professional life should be thought of in terms of a financial quid pro quo. A colleague may refer a case to you that never pans out. Or a complete stranger may do something so kind and simple that just makes your day. Neither enhances your pocketbook, but it’s important to consider the thoughts behind these gestures. Here are some situations in which we forget to say “thank you” — but really ought to remember. HELPFUL COLLEAGUES My colleagues have saved me on many occasions. They’ve sent sample pleadings, pulled cases from Lexis when I was unable to, covered hearings in a pinch and reviewed — and even drafted — sections of pleadings for me. But sometimes they go above and beyond the call of duty. Recently I had to leave town unexpectedly for a funeral, and I had to miss a court filing deadline. When I called a colleague for the phone number of a messenger service that could handle the filing, the colleague volunteered to do the filing himself. He drove to my house — a half hour’s drive from his — at 10 p.m. that night to pick it up. Depending upon the help the colleague provides, I send a thank-you note, treat the colleague to lunch or send a gift basket. Most frequently, however, I try to return the favor by making myself available when my colleagues find themselves in need. When colleagues refer a call to me, I take the call. I spend time listening to the caller’s problems and sometimes even research the issues involved. On some occasions I offer quick opinions — free of charge — that obviate the caller’s need for my services. Although I don’t make any money from these referrals, I thank the referring attorneys nonetheless. The referring attorneys believed that the cases might have had value, and held me in high enough esteem to refer them to me. (If I suspect an attorney is dumping loser cases on me, I give the attorney the benefit of the doubt and thank her anyway — the attorney’s motivation for referring the cases may be genuinely good. If it isn’t, it’s my hope that my sincere thank-you will make the referring attorney feel guilty and stop sending me duds.) OFFICE STAFF Our office staff help our practices run smoothly — most solos and small firms couldn’t survive without them. Secretaries screen calls to prevent distractions. Legal assistants and paralegals come up with ways to organize files and automate processes that increase productivity. Don’t forget to thank them. In addition to an expression of your appreciation, gifts and bonuses are appropriate thank-yous for these very important people. HELPFUL CLERKS Very often simple tasks such as getting a file from a court clerk, filing a pleading and making photocopies are complicated unnecessarily. Judges sometimes place holds on case files and clerk office supervisors sometimes decide to close early. Court clerks very often step up to the plate to help by getting the file you need from the judge or by filing your pleading even though the supervisor has closed the office. I was recently in a Kinko’s copy store, frantically trying to copy a complaint in order to file it before the court closed later that day. The machine — of course — jammed several times and crumpled my papers. I cursed and slammed the cover of the machine. A store technician approached, calmed me, took my papers to another machine and quickly completed the job. I thanked the technician profusely, but I also sent a follow-up letter to her supervisor and corporate headquarters to let them know how helpful this technician was. Letters to supervisors — and perhaps even to chief judges — are a great way to thank helpful clerks. THE LEGAL PROFESSION Many lawyers are so unhappy practicing law that they’d cringe at the idea of expressing gratitude to the legal profession. We must keep in mind that our profession profits from a judicial system that is funded and sustained by taxpayer dollars. It enables individuals — for the price of some business cards, a cell phone and a decent laptop — to set up shop and charge $200 an hour for legal advice. Not bad. So how does one thank an entire profession? I do it by meeting my pro bono obligation — which I undertake voluntarily. (Note to the Bars: You can’t force gratitude by mandating pro bono.) Every year, I handle at least one pro bono matter, or I contribute money to a legal aid group or my law school’s public interest service organization — one that raises money for summer salaries and loan forgiveness for attorneys who work for groups that serve the poor. It’s my way of making sure that as many people as possible benefit from the system that benefits me. DUTIFUL CLIENTS Ask any attorney about what makes the practice of law worthwhile and most will say that it’s thank-yous from clients. But beyond thanking them for prompt payment, how often do we thank our clients? Legal matters are huge burdens on our clients’ day-to-day lives. They have to take time off from work or arrange for child care, to prepare for hearings or attend depositions, and in some instances have to buy new clothes to wear to court. They disclose their life histories to us (near strangers), detail the embarrassing or disappointing events about the nasty employer or soon-to-be ex-spouse that brought them to our offices. None of this is easy for them. But as lawyers, we simply expect this from clients. Law is our job. Showing up for court on time (and properly attired) and rehearsing witness testimony for hours are routine. We rarely thank our clients for their efforts. We should. Carolyn Elefant is founder and principal attorney with the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant in Washington, D.C., and counsel to the Law Offices of Scott Hempling in Silver Spring, Md. In 2002, Elefant created My Shingle.com, a Web log for solo and small-firm practitioners and lawyers who dream of starting a practice. Elefant invites inquiries about her law practice or starting a law firm by e-mail at [email protected] Read Elefant’s bio.

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