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Staff Infection: Whether your legal secretary is a marketing asset or liability depends mostly on you

Ken” was having a bad day. Late and unprepared for a hearing that morning, he’d incurred the wrath of the judge, who took it out on Ken’s client.

Another client, fed up with Ken’s not returning her calls, had just picked up her file en route to an appointment with her new lawyer.

Two thirds of his accounts receivable were in the 90-day-plus category, one of which had been on the books for so long that he had to do his collecting in probate court.

It had been weeks since he’d received a referral from anyone except sadistic attorneys whose mission statements include: If Someone Comes To Me With No Money, No Case or No Address, I Will Send Him or Her to Ken.

His partners had just informed him that he – and he alone – wouldn’t be getting a draw for the next few months.

And now he had to put up with me, my laptop, PowerPoint presentation and laser pointer, enumerating all the uncompleted tasks in his marketing plan.

Staring longingly at the bottle of Cuervo 1800 on his credenza, Ken seemed to long for a Faustian bargain to deliver him from his plight. Finally, he said, “You know, sometimes I think I’m my own worst enemy.”

Clearly, he needed a lift, and I was just the guy to give it to him.

“Ah, come on, Ken, don’t be so hard on yourself. As your enemies go, you’re probably no worse than second worst.”

He brightened. “Really?”

“Absolutely,” I assured him, clapping him on the back and leading him over to his office door, which was slightly ajar. “Your worst enemy is right outside your door here.”

Our heads vertically aligned, we peered through the narrow opening. He gasped.

“No,” he whispered. “You can’t mean Constance.”

“Yes, Ken,” I said. “Watch.”

“Constance” was on the phone with a client who was doing most of the talking. Her patience obviously wearing thin, Constance was performing a seated, demonic pantomime of an angry caller, making flapping jaw gestures with the hand that wasn’t full of Cheetos. Her performance might have inflicted little immediate damage on Ken’s practice, but for the two slack-jawed clients-in-waiting who comprised her audience.

“What in the world is she doing?” Ken whispered.

“She’s working, Ken,” I said. “Haven’t you ever noticed this before? How long has she been with you, anyway?”

“Three years, but I had no idea ... and why didn’t she tell me those clients are here?”

At that moment, the caller must have stopped for a breath, because Constance took charge of the conversation.

“Well, he can’t talk to you right now. He’s working on something. And he has important clients waiting to see him. I don’t know. What’s your number. What? No. I don’t know when he’ll be able to get back to you. (Pause) What? Well, you know, like, that’s your choice and” – the phone rings – “wait, I’m going to put you on hold now.”

Instead of answering the other line, she stood up, hissed something about “these damn people,” and stomped off toward the kitchen.

Ken sprang abruptly from his crouched position, the top of his head opening a large gash in my chin, my upper and lower incisors converging sharply on the tip of my tongue.

While I rifled through his desk drawers, looking for something to staunch the flow of blood and wondering if my tongue had tied its last cherry stem in a knot, he paced frantically around his office.

“This is terrible. What can I do? I can’t fire her – then I’d have to train somebody else, and that might take weeks.”

“Lissem oo me, Kem,” I said, blotting the tears from my eyes, “Laby Macbeff wou’ be be’er ‘an ‘at woma’. You haf oo kalk koo huh.”

“’Talk to her?’ Look, you’ve tried to get me to do some crazy things but I am not going to do that. She might quit!”

“Wha’eveh,” I said. “Iss you’ prakiss.”

Tempting the Hands of Fate

No matter how successful you are in attracting new clients, and no matter how caring and sensitive you are to their needs, if you ignore the role of your secretary or receptionist in client relations, you’re tempting the hand of fate.

Imagine that you’ve been courting a prospective business client for several months. You’ve done everything right: researched the company and its legal needs, taken the CEO to a Diamondbacks game (in San Francisco), written big checks to his favorite charities, changed your political affiliation and church membership so he’d know you’re his kind of people, and helped him clean out his garage.

One morning, all of your schmoozing and bootlicking pays off: The CEO calls.

Unfortunately for you, you never bothered to tell your secretary that you were courting this guy. So instead of interrupting your debate with a well-read clerk over which of Tom Clancy’s books was his best, she takes a message. And then you go to lunch. And then to court. And by the time you get his message and breathlessly return his call, he’s decided to use that other lawyer who did such a nice job waxing Mrs. CEO’s Hummer last weekend.

Involving Your Secretary

In the interest of self-preservation, let me emphasize, con mólto passióne, that this is not an indictment of secretaries and receptionists. Rather, these more-or-less hypothetical anecdotes are offered as a warning to attorneys not to view their secretaries merely as organic extensions of their computer and phone.

Your secretary can almost certainly do more to support your practice than type your documents, take calls, manage your calendar and pick up your dry cleaning. She can be a valuable partner in building your practice, if you’ll just take the time to involve her more in the strategic side of things.

You and your secretary should meet at least once a week to keep each other current on a whole slew of important topics: new clients; important clients; problem clients; important items on your calendar; your work priorities for the week; complaints and compliments from clients; prospective clients and the things you’re doing to attract their business; appropriate thanks to recent referral sources; other client development projects; what she’s doing well, and what she could be doing better; and what you could do to help her be more effective in her work.

The Secretary’s Role in Client Development

Here’s how your secretary can help you in your client development efforts. She should:

Solicit client feedback – Are you happy with our service? Is there anything you’d like us to do differently? Is there some way we could serve you better? – and tell you what she learns ... good or bad.

Thank critical clients for their comments and tell you about them as soon as you have a free moment. She should also feel free to suggest how you might respond.

Help exceed clients’ expectations by underpromising and overdelivering.

Always find out who referred clients and remind you to thank your referral sources.

Familiarize herself with the expertise of other members of your firm and make effective internal referrals if you’re not available to speak with a prospective client whose needs are outside your practice area.

Be tenacious in reminding you to return phone calls.

Always sound pleasant on the phone and thank everyone – clients, prospects, adverse parties, opposing counsel, your marketing consultant, you name it – for calling.

Be prepared to describe your practice to others – accurately, thoroughly, and positively.

Be able to describe to others all of your firm’s major services.

Beware of Excessive Candor

In your supervisory role, keep a sharp ear for indelicate candor,

such as:

“He’s hasn’t come in yet today.”

“He’s late.”

“Are you kidding? It’s only 9:30.”

“He’s still at lunch.”

“He doesn’t want to talk to you.”

“He’s reading the newspaper.”

“He’s in the bathroom.”

“He’s asleep.”

“This is his golf day. You must be new.”

“He’s getting his massage.””

“He’s practicing his putting.”

“He’s fighting with his wife.”

Obviously, discretion isn’t the only trait of a good secretary or receptionist. She should also exhibit:

Sensitivity to the emotional conditions of clients;

Cheerfulness and warmth in greeting clients;

The ability to ask clients to fill out an intake form without making them think they’re at a doctor’s office;

The ability to take accurate, complete phone messages that convey the caller’s sense of urgency;

Restraint in badmouthing you or your clients in the presence of clients (or, for that matter, anyone else);

The right balance of familiarity with, and professional distance from, your clients; and

Professional manner and appearance.

Supervising Made Easy

Your ability to assess your secretary’s work habits and your willingness to appropriately praise and reprimand her are two of the cornerstones of being a good supervisor. More important, though, is allowing your secretary and other support staff to be a functioning and contributing part of your practice and the process by which you hope to develop it.

An axiom of leadership is, “People tend to support that which they helped create.” Give your staff creative input into your practice, and the resulting support they give you just might make growing your practice – and managing them – more productive and enjoyable.

Norm Hulcher

Hulcher & Hays, LLC is a Phoenix-based law firm marketing consultant (www.hulcher.net)

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About the Author: Hulcher & Hays, LLC is a Phoenix-based law firm marketing consultant (www.hulcher.net)

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