by Paul Wallin
Over the past 35 years, I have been fortunate to be the senior partner of the law firm Wallin & Klarich, A Law Corporation.
I have had the good fortune of leading and managing my own law practice for over 30 years. My clients have faced all types of criminal matters ranging from traffic tickets to murder and child molestation charges. In addition, I have represented clients who have been involved in family related disputes, such as child custody, divorce, spousal and child support, and guardianship.
Over the course of my career, I have also had the honor of hiring, training, supervising (and unfortunately terminating) scores of young lawyers. After sitting down and reflecting on many of the things I have learned during these many years of law practice, I realized that many young lawyers out there can benefit from the knowledge I have gained over time. If these words can in some way help young lawyers, then this exercise will be well worth my time.
Here is a list of the four things I wish I knew when I started my practice:
l. The money is not the important thing
You are probably facing a huge student loan debt from law school, which may exceed $100,000. How are you possibly going to pay off this size debt? Your first impulse may be to charge as much money as you possibly can to your clients. However, this would be a major error in judgment for many reasons.
First, as a young lawyer, you do not have the experience to warrant a high fee. You will be competing against experienced lawyers, who may be charging the same fee you are quoting and have a “track record” of success in your area of law.
Second, in order to build your law practice, you need clients. If you scare away a potential client with a high fee, you will lose the opportunity to show that client the excellent job you can do for him or her.
Repeat business is the name of the game for any successful law firm. If you do not have clients retain you (because you are charging too much money), you will never get the chance to get referral or repeat business from that client.
Third, when you begin your practice, you will be likely “learning” a new area of law. One way to “learn” an area of law is to agree to handle cases for potential clients “pro bono” or at low fees. You can call upon more experienced lawyers for guidance. Your client will be impressed that you are conferring with other lawyers, and he or she will more likely keep you in mind in the future because you worked hard on his or her case, and he or she received “good value” for his dollar.
2. It is much more important to be a good listener than a good talker
When you become a new lawyer, you might think you know a lot. However, in reality you probably know very little of what you will need to know to become a good lawyer. In efforts to impress new potential clients, new lawyers tend to talk about how much law they know. One thing I wish I knew when I was a new lawyer is that it is much more important to be a good listener as opposed to a talker.
Potential clients come to you because they have legal issues. They need to be listened to. They need to feel “heard.” They did not come to your office to listen to a lecture, or to be “talked down to.”
The general consensus among “non-lawyers” is that lawyers think they are pretty smart. Lawyers may perpetuate this belief by trying to impress potential clients with words they learned in law school.
However, the average client will not be impressed by fancy words they do not understand. How would you like to sit down to ask someone for help with a legal problem and believe the person providing you the legal help was speaking in a different language?
The bottom line is when a potential client comes to you for legal help you should do only two things:
A. Listen to his or her legal problem, and allow him or her tell you the entire story without interruptions; and
B. Attempt to answer his or her legal problem in clear, understandable language. Make certain you ask many times if he or she has any questions about all of his or her legal options.
3. Care about your client and his or her legal problem or turn down the case
I often ask prospective employees of our law firm what motivated them to go to law school. I have received scores of responses. However, when I hear that an attorney applicant went to law school to make money, he or she has zero chance of receiving an offer of employment from our law firm. When an attorney tells me that he or she went to law school to help people (assuming I believe it is a sincere response), we move him or her to the next round because of the “winning answer.”
The bottom line is if you do not truly care about helping clients, you wasted 3 years of your life (and tons of money) going to law school. The fact that you passed the bar means nothing other than the State of California allowing you to “practice” law upon your clients.
You cannot fake caring. Clients can smell out a fake within minutes. If a client is coming to you because he or she has not been allowed to see his two-month-old baby since the child was born, and you do not have compassion for that person, you shouldn’t take on the case regardless of how much money the client has to be pay you.
When I was in law school, we were told over and over not to get emotionally involved in any client’s case. I didn’t understand that advice then, so I rejected it. I attribute a large percentage of my personal success as a lawyer to the fact that I truly care about every one of my clients’ cases. When I represent someone for a traffic ticket, I realize that to that client it is the most important legal matter he or she may have ever faced. I defend that client aggressively because I know that by doing so, regardless of whether I win or lose the traffic trial, he or she will be appreciative of my commitment to his or her case.
When you truly care about your client’s case, you are willing to sacrifice many things to make sure you have done all you can for that client. That will often mean missing a meal to do some research. It may mean missing your favorite sporting event because you want to make sure you have reviewed every line in the police report and are ready to cross examine the police officer the next morning. It could mean you wake up at 4:00am and find yourself drooling on the case file because you have worked on the case until you collapsed.
If you are not willing to care that much for a client’s case, then you should not take on the case. However, if you are willing to do what it takes to go the distance for your client, then you are going to be a successful lawyer. Your work product will show your client how much you care. You will always be more prepared than the opposing counsel. You will achieve outstanding results, and you will feel good about yourself and the profession you selected.
4. The key to success as a lawyer is communicating with your client
Above all else, the one thing I wish I knew 35 years ago is the critical importance of communicating with your client.
Communicating with your client is so much more than sending a client a monthly billing and a five minute monthly phone call about the status of the case. If you want to be a successful lawyer, you will learn early on in your career that your clients want and need to be able to speak to you when they have questions about their cases. You need to communicate with your clients as much as possible by email. When your client can email you and can get a quick response to his or her question, he or she will likely be your client for life. This will set you apart from 99% of your competition.
Many people have a belief that lawyers are lazy. If you want to be successful, you have to be a hard-working individual. You need to put in the long hours. You need to do the legal research necessary to understand the legal issues involved in your client’s case.
Most importantly, you need to make certain that your client knows you are doing all of this work. Sending an email to your client on a Saturday night at 8pmwill provide him with the relief that he has in fact made the right decision in hiring you. It doesn’t matter when the client reads the email. The message you are sending is crystal clear. You are working on his case at 8pm on a Saturday when 99.9% of lawyers are doing something totally unrelated to their law career. The great news is that this Saturday night email can take you as little as two minutes. However, your client will likely be singing your praises to anyone he interacts with that evening.
What is amazing about this fact is that in reality it is so very easy in 2014 to communicate by email with your clients with very little effort. No messages on your cell phone. No lengthy unnecessary conversations with the client via phone. Your client can read the email over and over when he or she needs to refresh his memory about his question and your answer. There is never a “dispute” as to what you said, or what the client said, as there is always a written record.
Communicating with your client is a win-win at every level. Does that mean that there is no risk involved in this type of communication with your client? No. There is always risk in everything we do as lawyers.
You will encounter from time to time a client that wants to email you 20 times a day. You will need to evaluate each client carefully and limit the communication with the client who wants to abuse the privilege. You will also need to know what you are talking about when you send an email response to a client because there will be a written record if the advice you gave your client is incorrect.
However, learning the art of regular communication with your client will assure you happy clients (regardless of case result), and a flood of referrals from that happy client over the next many years.
If you can understand these four concepts and are able to utilize them, you stand a very good chance of successfully running your law firm and actually enjoying the process.
Mr. Wallin founded Wallin & Klarich in 1981. As the senior partner of Wallin & Klarich, Mr. Wallin has been successfully representing clients for more than 30 years. Clients come to him for help in matters involving assault and battery, drug crimes, juvenile crimes, theft, manslaughter, sex offenses, murder, violent crimes, misdemeanors and felonies. Mr. Wallin also helps clients with family law matters such as divorce and child custody.