Independent Thinking: Building Reputation in a small law firm

July 17, 2012

Will Rogers said “it takes a lifetime to build a good reputation, but you can lose it in a minute.”  This is especially true in the practice of law.  Small Law: Independent Thinking

Your most valuable asset as an attorney is your reputation for providing thoughtful, professional representation to your clients.  For owners of small firms, every detail matters—from how you dress and conduct yourself in public, to the quality of your work, to the cases you carry under your firm’s banner—because you are your firm.  Your good name is constantly under construction.

The task of building your reputation begins in law school, and continues until retirement.  Because it is an organic process that truly does take a lifetime, it is impossible to gather in any single publication every tip for cultivating a strong professional reputation.

The following are only the most basic rules of thumb:

Quality first.  Regardless of which client you represent, or your level of experience, you should treat every communication that comes out of your office as if it were under review by the Supreme Court.  Proofread everything, from appellate briefs to casual e-mails among colleagues.  Every communication is an expression of your sophistication and attention to detail. 

While it is possible that some clients may hire you despite poor work product (though I have yet to meet one), it is definite that some clients will fire you if you produce shoddy product.

Be responsive.  When your clients, opposing counsel, or colleagues leave you messages, return them promptly.

Mind the New York Times “front page” standard.  I am not talking about the New York Times v. Sullivan standard, but rather a more common-sense standard.  Do not say or write anything publicly that you would not want quoted on the front page of the New York Times.

With the social media available today, word travels fast.  We are often alone in advertising our successes—but there is no shortage of people eager to help advertise our gaffes.

Never—ever—lie.  The importance of this rule cannot be overstated.  If you develop a reputation as a lawyer whose word cannot be trusted, your career is on borrowed time.

Do nice things for others.  Community involvement does matter, and kind gestures are remembered by clients and other sources of potential business.

Look The Part.  Whether you offer your services pro bono or charge $400 per hour, present yourself like you are worth a million.  Every day should be “dress like a lawyer” day.  You may have been a law student or a rebellious junior associate in your past life, but you are a business owner and a professional now, and everyone you meet is a potential client.  The General Counsel of Apple Computer is not impressed by your rage against the machine, neither is an indigent client with a landlord/tenant dispute.  Rather, all clients want assurance that you know your audience and will react accordingly, because that kind of awareness helps advance their interests.

Deliver results.  Nothing speaks louder, and leads to more business, than positive results.  But not every case is a winner.  If you cannot win, promise only what you are certain you can deliver.  Then, deliver it.

When these rules are ignored, the consequences directly impact a small firm’s bottom line.  Sometimes, it leads to an uncomfortable discussion about the value of one’s legal services.  Other times, it leads to the total loss of a good client or the inability to attract clients at all.  Most people will not bother to tell you when you fail to meet their professional expectations.  They will simply move on and hire an attorney who does.

But if you use the foregoing principles as your guide, you will steadily develop a good reputation, and a strong client base to match.