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Written by Norman Clark
Published: 28 April 2015
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man's hand holding a "free service" card

One of the issues that arose during the recent Walker Clark Sustainable Profitability Symposium in Miami on 18 April 2015 was how law firms can lose money on what should be profitable client relationships by providing too many services "off the clock." This phenomenon usually arises when a partner repeatedly provides advice as a "professional courtesy" or as a "client relations" activity, rather than charging a fee.

Such professional courtesies are a bright spot, in my opinion, of our profession. They can demonstrate a sincere commitment to meet a client's needs, or to assist a colleague in another law firm, that states, more persuasively than marketing slogans, that the firm is truly willing to place quality above financial gain in appropriate circumstances.

The problems arise when some clients, and especially other law firms that might refer work, keep coming back for more advice. What might start out as a simple question can mutate into a series of e-mail questions and advice that can consume dozens of hours of lawyer time, that otherwise could have been spent on billed work. 

How should a firm respond to the "just one more question" e-mail that comes from a client or a friendly law firm?

There are two methods that appear to work well, but, like any tools, they must be used carefully.

There is an old Chinese proverb that, "When you handle the master carpenter's tools, chances are that you'll cut yourself."

Like all highly effective tools, these must be used with caution. These tactics require a good knowledge on your part of the person at the other end of the communication. Obviously, you do not want to jeopardize a long-standing productive relationship over a few hours of free legal advice.  (However, many of relationships that take advantage of your good nature in this way usually are not productive ones.) 

Some cients might appear to be outraged that you would send even a "no charge" bill for significant amounts of unengaged legal advice, or that you would suggest that your "professional courtesies" are not infinite. If they if they do, consider whether that is the type of client that you firrm really wants to keep. Pouring more money, in the form of free services, into a marginally profitable client seldom, if ever, makes the client profitable.

Norman Clark