When it comes to bringing business into a firm, perception is everything. A client’s perception of you as an attorney will dictate whether or not he or she decides to retain you. Additionally, that same perception can determine if the relationship with a retained client will be positive or negative. As a young attorney, I sometimes speculate on what factors lead a client to entrust me with his or her business. What type of person did I reveal to the client in order to convince him or her to hire me for his or her legal claim? Conversely, in the instances where I was not retained, what attributes persuaded the potential client to bring his or her business elsewhere?
For all young attorneys, the responsibility of bringing business into a firm can be intimidating. Acquiring new clients is not a talent that young attorneys get to practice. Legal education almost never emphasizes the skills that are necessary to bring in new business. Internships and clerkships do not provide the opportunity to learn what it takes to sell our legal knowledge on the open market. Prior to becoming lawyers, our legal minds are rarely permitted to practice sale tactics on clients. We simply do not know what works or does not work when it comes to developing our own selling points.
Thus, when young attorneys pass the bar and begin their burgeoning legal careers, these skills must develop from the ground up. Unfortunately, we begin this journey with so many unanswered questions. What is the client’s first impression of me? Does the client trust that I can handle the task at hand? Do I come across as knowledgeable and competent? The lack of practice can fuel a client’s preconceived notions of us as young attorneys. In the eyes of the average client, younger lawyers may be placed in two dichotomous extremes: the "young and hungry" attorney or the "inexperienced and incapable" attorney.
A client may perceive the young attorney in a positive light. When clients hear the phrase "young attorney," it is often accompanied by the adjectives "hungry," "energetic" and "go-getter." In the minds of these potential clients, younger attorneys differentiate themselves from the jaded lawyers that fill countless stereotypes of members of our profession. According to this stereotype, lack of experience translates into an incentive to give each case the detail and care that many clients believe more seasoned attorneys fail to provide. This perception can be a valuable asset in retaining new business.
Several months ago, I was contacted by a potential client who was referred to me by a high school friend. I could tell from our initial interaction that my age gave him pause. The client made several comments to me that subtly indicated that he wanted to know whether I was the young and hungry attorney or the inexperienced and incapable attorney. He made an initial joke about our relative ages. I responded with a passing comment about how my history of legal practice was ideal for the type of legal problem his case presented. We broke character momentarily and began to review the facts of his case.
I presented my preliminary analysis to the client. He challenged it. In fact, the client told me that he had heard the exact opposite interpretation was true from someone who had it on good authority. In response, I told him that I knew what I was talking about and he should seriously question the knowledge of the individual who had given him his previous advice. The client broke into a smile. He joked, "I like that, you’re a fighter." I laughed at his initial challenge and continued with the interview. Our meeting concluded with him retaining me for his initial matter. Our relationship has been positive ever since and I have handled several subsequent matters for him as well.
Unfortunately, exciting initial interactions do not always result in a good relationship with the client. Sometimes the client’s perception of you as a young attorney can be a disadvantage. Some clients associate young attorneys with less flattering adjectives, such as "inexperienced" and "weak." Under their rationale, a younger lawyer’s only role is to assist older, more experienced attorneys in carrying out their legal strategies. Clients who perceive young attorneys as inexperienced and incapable will also attempt to gauge their initial reactions. However, these tests are not intended to elicit a spark or fiery response; they are instead the byproduct of serious concerns of competency. Even after representation is established, a client’s concern may result in a less-than-stellar relationship between the attorney and the client. For example, a concerned client may breach boundaries of etiquette, routinely challenge your legal opinions, second-guess settlement advice and oversee the day-to-day activities of his or her matter in inappropriate ways.
When I experienced my first negative relationship with a client I had brought into the firm, I took it personally. I associated my inability to connect with the client and establish a healthy attorney-client relationship as a significant personal failure. The client would constantly call on the emergency number for routine inquiries despite several requests to the contrary. He would openly question and contradict my legal advice. Any time I mentioned any factual developments that negatively impacted his case, he would contact another attorney in my office and request a second opinion. Every phone call I had with this client was an awkward ballet of pleasantries to avoid any future disagreements.
The relationship was not improving, despite the fact that I had come recommended by a close friend of his. I was forced to make a decision about the future of our firm’s representation with this particular client. My assessment of our situation was that the client had an inherent distrust toward me because of my age and experience. I opted to transfer all duties to the oldest attorney in the firm. I slowly phased myself out and drafted summaries to assist my colleague with picking up where I left off with the case. I checked back with my colleague several weeks later to discuss his impressions of the client. His response was surprising. The client was extremely respectful to him on the phone. Although the legal advice had not changed, the client was more receptive toward my colleague’s point of view. When my colleague suggested a settlement number, the client agreed without hesitation. His relationship with the client was the exact opposite of what I had experienced. My colleague had found ways to develop the relationship that I had been unable to achieve.
The contradiction taught me a very valuable lesson: It is important for any attorney to portray him or herself in a competent manner when dealing with potential clients. However, it is even more important for younger attorneys. We must not only be cognizant of what we know and how we present ourselves, but we must also be aware of the inevitable perceptions that will follow us as younger lawyers. Without a full understanding of both of these factors, a younger attorney can be powerless as to whether he or she will be perceived as the young and hungry attorney or the inexperienced and incapable attorney. The goal is to work each day to firmly cement yourself in the category of the former. •
John Krawczyk is an associate at Koller Law. He focuses on employment and real estate law and can be reached at email@example.com.