Think about the authority you might need later

Michael Kemp, The Daily Record Newswire

I was out with a friend for Memorial Day, and we sat out on a restaurant’s patio. It was late, but it was a nice night, and we didn’t really notice that everyone had gone home. Everyone but us. Last call came and we ordered our last drinks and sat out for a while until around midnight, when he decided to head home. We grabbed our empty glasses and headed back inside, only to find the staff in civilian clothes and the bar empty. They’d been shut down for at least 45 minutes, but had stayed open so we could finish our drinks.
Afterwards, I went across the street to another restaurant to say hi a friend who was finishing up her evening there. The bartender looked up as soon as I walked in. “We’re closing.”

I informed him that I was just walking through to say hi to a friend out on the patio. He told me he would have to ask a manager if that was all right. Then he came back and took me out to the patio where he told my friend it was time to leave. I walked home shaking my head.

Now let me start here: There is no reason on Earth either place had any obligation to stay open longer than they wanted to, especially when, in both cases, I was the last person there. There’s nothing wrong with having a closing time and sticking to it. As consumers, we expect that people will go a little out of their way to make our customer service experience better — even when, as in this case, we really have no right to expect it. But the experience did make me think about some of the concessions we make as solo practitioners to our clients, and whether they make sense. Specifically, I’m talking about making concessions about when and where you will meet clients, and why that means more than you would think.

Most people work 9 to 5 jobs. That means a lot of your clients will have to make a choice between taking time off of work, or coming to meet you at seven in the evening or over the weekend. You may well be in your office late at night or over the weekend, but if you’re like me, you prefer to use that time for blocks of things you would rather do without interruption.

When you have a client who can’t come to the office during business hours, something is going to have to be sacrificed. Meeting with someone by telephone on their lunch hour sometimes works, but it isn’t effective if you need to look over a document together. Meeting someone at 7 at night is workable sometimes, but not when you need three hours for trial preparation. When you meet someone on the weekend for their convenience — or even necessity — you’re sacrificing your free time, but that’s not even the interesting part. More on that in a minute.

The issue isn’t limited to clients who don’t have time to meet during normal business hours. Added to that are the clients who don’t have any means of transportation. The classic example is this case is the client whose license has been revoked for a DUI. Sure, of course they have some means of transportation; they could always take a two hour bus ride to come meet you (also not a great idea when they have to come after work). In that circumstance, do you drive out to meet them at their home or a coffee shop somewhere?

In some ways, it seems like an easy answer. Sure, you’re giving up your time for your clients, but every time you go into work you’re giving up your time for your clients (whenever that is). This isn’t a column about work/life balance; I’ve said I wouldn’t write one of those, and so far, I haven’t. No, this is a column about the importance of maintaining a position of authority. Every time you tell your client that you will go out of your way to make things easier for them, you improve the “customer service” part of the experience, but you are sacrificing some authority. That’s important, because the dark side of the “customer service” part of legal representation is remembering that our representation is not intended to make things easier on our clients.

The Army, and the infantry especially, has a strict (in theory) non-fraternization policy. Enlisted soldiers are not supposed to hang out with non-commissioned officers, who are not supposed to hang out with commissioned officers. The reasoning behind it is fairly obvious. Many corporations have a more lenient and more familiar non-fraternization policy. Now lawyers don’t usually have to have the same command authority with our clients as the infantry officers or even employee supervisors, but we still have to push our clients to make hard choices and come down on them when they fail to follow through on their obligations (to us or to the court).

Importantly, that command authority for small firm or solo attorneys is never going to come from the institutional structure inherent to a large law firm. When (most) clients walk into a large firm, they will feel the disparity of power between themselves and the 200-person firm that occupies six floors of a downtown skyscraper. They solo attorney who drives out to meet them on a Sunday morning at Caribou will never have that kind of inherent authority.

But we still have to push them to do things they don’t want to. It can be as simple as making them spend hours, days, or weeks complying with a large and burdensome but legitimate discovery request. It can be as monumental as forcing them to take a hard look at the serious criminal charges against them and making a decision that will change the rest of their lives. When we have to do that, it helps to have authority behind your position, and every time you twist your schedule around to make their lives easier, you give up a little of the ability to make them do something that will make their lives harder.

I’m not advocating a hard closing time. Certainly there are good times to make concessions to our clients or potential clients. And customer service still is an important part of legal representation. But remember that whenever you make those concessions, you are giving up more than just your time. You are giving up a little bit of the authority you might need later.

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Contact Michael Kemp at mkemp@metlawmn.com.

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