Over the past couple of weeks read a number of blog posts, articles and transcripts focused on the topic of “bad clients”. The ones who ask too much for too little, and the potential clients who take advantage of free consultations only to scam free advice from professionals, and with no intent to hire. There seems to be a lot of advice out there intended to protect me from my clients, and from people who come to take advantage of the free consultations I voluntarily provide. I’ve heard bitter conversations about the “tire kickers” and “time wasters”, and folks who are only trying to scam enough free information to go out and do it themselves for free.
I believe that if you offer something for free, you should make that offer honestly, freely and without reservation. If you offer a free consultation, and someone comes and takes advantage of that free consultation and does not hire you, then they’ve taken you up on exactly what you offered. As they say, there’s no crying in baseball. If you are not prepared to offer information for free, with an open heart and the knowledge that the person taking you up on your offer is not obligated to hire you, then don’t make the offer. It is unfair to judge people who accept what you offer and go on their way.
The negative energy of these posts, articles and conversations leaves me feeling drained, and a little bit concerned that there is a new “anti-client” culture developing which, in my opinion, will benefit neither clients nor attorneys (or other professionals). What happened to being grateful for our clients? To appreciating their business, and appreciating them as people?
Today I unpacked the last of the boxes I moved to my apartment a year ago this month. They contained mostly books and papers, DVDs and the chargers from a small army of BlackBerrys. One box contained a gift from a former client about which I had all but forgotten.
This bear. This silly bear with its yellow flowers and too much glue holding its glass eyes on tight. A former personal injury client made this bear for me. She is not a person of means. Getting injured and not being able to work because of it did not help in this regard. She hired me for her personal injury case, but during the course of that representation I helped her with a number of other legal matters free of charge. She made this bear to thank me for all I had done for her, and for believing in her. In retrospect, I should have been thanking her.
I didn’t get paid for the majority of the legal work I did for this client. There were people around me who laughed each time I took up the next small legal problem for her or one of her family members, reminding me that I wasn’t going to get paid. There were those who rolled their eyes as each new “situation” requiring my attention unfolded, sure that my time was about to be wasted. There were times I’m not proud of when I wondered if they were right.
Then this bear arrived in my office. It came with a note expressing gratitude for all I had done, and regret that she had never had the money to pay me for all of my work. The day this bear arrived in my office, all of the dark speculation about her motives was proved wrong. It is all a matter of perspective. I could choose to look at the empty hand into which a wealthier client would have slid their credit card, or at this simple gesture of honest-to-God gratitude from a woman who had trusted me to help keep her and her family afloat through some rough times. Turns out she had been paying me all along. In trust. In confidence in my ability to help her. She saw me as “her” attorney, and trusted me to iron out real problems in her life and in the lives of her family members. Isn’t that what we all hope for? To be trusted?
Every day we go out there and ask people to trust us enough to hire us. And after we get hired, we’re sometimes too busy running the credit card or cashing the check to remember the “trust” part. That part has real value beyond the value of money. That’s the part that lifts people up. That’s the part that creates long term professional relationships. That’s the part that builds a professional practice.
When I look at this bear I’m reminded to maintain perspective on the value of trust, the patience it takes to find clients with whom I can develop and earn trust, and the importance of nurturing professional relationships, even those, and maybe particularly those, that sometimes glean more trust and confidence than money.