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 Like you, I’ve been a consumer for years and the older I get the more I’ve come to recognize the impact of first impressions on my spending decisions. I can only speak for me; but at this point in my life if I’m approached by an aggressive salesperson when first entering a store, I’m prone to leaving. If I’m trying to shop online and a website fails to load properly because it’s outdated or is difficult to navigate, I’ll quickly move on. If upon entering a restaurant, I find it to be completely empty, I’ll go elsewhere. In short, I choose to allow my first impressions to influence when and where I spend my money because life is too short. I just don’t need to waste any time dealing with unwanted attention, tech incompetence, or bad food.

Of course, I get that you may see things very differently than I do when it comes to how you make your decisions about when and where to spend your hard-earned money. That’s not the point I’m trying to make. My point is we all have first impressions in a wide variety of situations and those impressions can’t help but influence our decision-making process.

Consider this. In my role as a risk manager, I have visited well over a thousand law firms. When doing so, I was occasionally asked to sit and wait in an untidy reception area or taken to an absolutely cluttered and dirty conference room. A few of these spaces looked more like old storage rooms for broken furniture than the public areas they actually were. At other times, I was kept waiting for 30 to 60 minutes past my appointment time without explanation and once or twice entirely forgotten about. I have been the recipient of ice-cold greetings by staff and treated by receptionists as if I was a bother. Experiences like these often result in the creation of a negative first impression. That’s normal. What interests me is what one does with it in response.

alps guide to managing your law firm

So, try to put yourself in my shoes. What might your response to any of the above experiences have been? Better yet, if prospective clients were to have a similar experience when first entering your firm, what might their response be? I ask because it’s going to be much easier to establish an effective and trusting attorney-client relationship if a potential new client’s first impression is a positive one. I will share that often my initial response was to begin to question the business and occasionally even legal acumen of the attorneys who practiced in these firms. Certainly, my initial opinions were open to being changed, but it was now going to be an uphill climb.

Understand that first impressions are made at first contact, be it calling for an appointment, visiting your website, or walking through your front door. They are often set before you even have a chance to meet with a prospective client and it’s all about presentation and experience. Think about what your firm is doing. Is there a welcoming greeting? Is the space tidy and inviting? Is your website user-friendly and functional on multiple platforms, including mobile devices? With all this in mind, I offer the following as ideas to help get you started in thinking about what you can do to try and make certain you’re making the right first impressions.

Train staff to greet every individual as soon as possible, certainly within a minute of someone entering the office, and remember that even a sales representative who is turned away today may be a prospective client tomorrow. If your receptionist happens to be helping someone else, have them share a simple “Hello, I’ll be with you in a moment” in order to acknowledge the individual’s presence.

Make sure a reminder call, text message, or email goes out in advance of all initial potential client appointments.

Never allow others to overhear confidential or personal conversations, particularly in the reception area. If conversations from an employee break area, a conference room, or attorney offices can be heard in reception, consider some type of soundproofing. Periodically remind staff and attorneys that confidential or personal matters should never be discussed within earshot of any visitors. In fact, give staff permission to briefly interrupt a client meeting to perhaps shut a door if voices can be overheard in reception or by visitors elsewhere in the office.

Never make it possible for visitors to view computer screens, particularly those in use in public areas such as reception. 
Occasionally check the waiting area during office hours. This is an especially good customer service technique. If anyone sitting there seems bored or frustrated and has been in the reception area for less than ten minutes, there’s a problem. Refresh this space with the intent to make their wait as pleasant as possible. Remember potential clients don’t like having to wait for you just as much as you wouldn’t like having to wait for them if things were reversed.

Consider occasionally sitting in your own reception area for 10 or 15 minutes or asking someone you know and trust to do so. Try to get a sense of how the space comes across to others. For example, does the reading material provided fit your clientele? While Scientific American is probably a great choice for an intellectual property practice, it isn’t going to win any points with clients of a family law practice. If families use your waiting area, you might want to set out items that will hold a child’s attention. At a minimum, all magazines and newspapers should be current as opposed to displaying outdated ones that have a home address label still attached. You really don’t want to come across as being cheap.

Keep the reception area clean and orderly because an unkept reception area is too easily seen as a reflection of the quality of service offered by the firm. Before the attorney-client relationship has even started, a potential new client may begin to question whether the attorney has enough time to appropriately deal with their matter simply because it appears the attorney doesn’t even have enough time to see that the place is picked up.

In a similar vein, don’t minimize the importance of appropriate attire. Staff and attorneys alike need to dress the part whenever meeting potential new clients. This isn’t to suggest that casual Fridays and the like are inappropriate. Just be mindful that people will make initial judgments about someone they’re meeting for the first time based upon overall appearance. I can share I have actually walked into a law firm where I was given a nod by the receptionist who was slovenly dressed, reading a romance novel, and chewing gum with her feet on the desk. Suffice it to say, my initial thought was I would never hire anyone in this firm because tolerance for the sloppy appearance suggested a tolerance for sloppy work. The message was they didn’t care.

Make sure that client information and documents remain confidential at all times. For example, if client file material needs to be in the reception area in order for the receptionist to do their work, make sure wandering eyes can never land on those materials. Also, never leave client file material, mail, or anything else that might identify a client on the counter or privacy wall around the reception desk.

Try to prevent anyone from having to wait longer than ten minutes. Most people are willing to be reasonable and wait a short amount of time for the right lawyer; but don’t expect them to wait as long for their lawyer as they might for their doctor. While medical emergencies do arise, lawyers can rarely claim a legal emergency. If prospective clients are waiting too long, consider altering your scheduling procedures. If a delay is unavoidable, have staff inform them of the delay as quickly as possible and discuss options. Some will wait and others may need to reschedule.

Be mindful of the difficulties receptionists face when assigned phone answering duties. Confidentiality can easily be breached in a law office when someone in the reception area overhears a phone conversation or a client name. The receptionist should have a way of notifying attorneys that someone has arrived or that a client is on the phone without being forced to breach client confidentiality. Statements like “You’re two o’clock appointment is here” or “you have a call on line one” as opposed to “John Smith is here, and he wants to talk with you about getting a divorce” should be acceptable when necessary. Viable alternatives might include the use of privacy glass, chat or email notifications of a waiting call, or the moving of phone answering responsibilities away from the reception area.

If your space permits, have visitor areas and work areas separated by a wall or partition. One never knows what impression potential new clients may have when they observe people working. Some may see energetic and busy staff members and take that as a positive sign while others may see the staff as overworked or unprofessional and conclude the opposite. A wall with a tasteful picture or two is worth the investment. In fact, some firms place all conference room areas near reception and away from work areas for this very reason.

Don’t overlook your Web presence. A poorly designed website, a website that doesn’t display properly on a mobile device, or a website that isn’t kept current can send a message about your competency and priorities as well. After all, who wants their attorney to be someone who appears to think halfway is good enough or perhaps got started on something and then neglected to follow through?

Finally, do all that you can to make sure all incoming calls are answered by a real person. For those calls that must go to voicemail, see that all messages from potential new clients are returned ASAP, meaning within an hour if at all possible. A missed call too easily becomes a missed opportunity because your potential new client is still looking and may shortly decide to become an actual client of another attorney in town.

Since 1998, Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq. has been a Risk Manager with ALPS, an attorney’s professional liability insurance carrier. In his tenure with the company, Mr. Bassingthwaighte has conducted over 1200 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented over 600 continuing legal education seminars throughout the United States, and written extensively on risk management, ethics, and technology. Mr. Bassingthwaighte is a member of the State Bar of Montana as well as the American Bar Association where he currently sits on the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility’s Conference Planning Committee. He received his J.D. from Drake University Law School.

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