Young lawyers urged to treat clients well, volunteer

By Lee Dryden
BridgeTower Media Newswires

DETROIT — While lawyers can use marketing and advertising to attract clients, there also is a much simpler method to keep your practice churning.

If you treat your clients — and really, everyone — well, word will spread.

“Anybody that you encounter could ultimately be an ambassador for your practice and/or become a client at some point,” said Texas lawyer Matthew Lee Czimskey, who spoke during an Oct. 20 panel discussion at the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division’s Fall Conference at the Westin Book Cadillac in Detroit.

Czimskey was joined on the panel by Lone Star State colleagues Jeanine Novosad Rispoli and Stephen Laborde Rispoli. They told attendees from across the country about the benefits of pro bono work and the importance of having “client ambassadors.”

Pro bono tips

While it is a vital community service to perform pro bono work, lawyers should be careful to choose cases where they can be the most effective, panel members said.

If the matter is within your skill set, the work will be more enjoyable, Jeanine Rispoli said, and you’ll serve the client better.

“Like the ABA rules suggest, you need to be a competent attorney,” she said.

Taking on pro bono cases in your area of interest will increase your motivation to take time away from regular work tasks to volunteer, said Stephen Rispoli, assistant dean of student affairs and pro bono programs at Baylor Law School in Waco, Texas.

“You have to find something that you want to get involved in that you’re passionate about,” he said. “That will make it much, much easier.”

For young lawyers who want to volunteer but are buried in work, Czimskey offered simple advice: “You just have to make an effort to do it.”

He added that legal aid clinics offer an opportunity to help by visiting for three hours on a weeknight.

Stephen Rispoli acknowledged it’s difficult for attorneys to carve out pro bono time early in their careers when partners are loading them down with work. It’s a matter of taking on the first volunteer effort then getting used to managing pro bono work with the rest of your caseload, he said.

“It’s a tradeoff, of course, like everything else, but I think that you will find that the reward that you get from doing these cases will last longer than the money that was made for the firm,” he said.

Czimskey suggested asking a partner within your firm to tackle a pro bono case with you. Then, he or she will know how you are spending your time.

He helps at a legal clinic run by a faith-based organization.

“It’s something that I just feel called to do,” he said. “After the clinic, I always feel better about what I’m doing. I feel like I’m really serving the community.”

Czimskey typically does transactional work so the clinic provides different challenges. He doesn’t practice family and employment law, but he can get the facts of cases and refer them to other lawyers.

Pro bono work provides perspective, Czimskey said, as it fosters a positive feeling in contrast to being drained after handling a multimillion-dollar case at work.

He recalled helping a woman with a simple will. She repaid him by delivering a cake to his office.

“I’ll remember that cake more than any check I ever got from any client,” Czimskey said.

Jeanine Rispoli, who practices family law, said there are ways to help beyond traditional pro bono efforts.

“Sometimes these organizations just need someone to talk to people and realize they don’t need an attorney,” she said.

Pro bono work boosts the status of the legal profession and emphasizes that it is a service industry, Jeanine Rispoli said.

“We have a bad reputation,” she said. “Anytime that lawyers can look good, it helps us. It helps the community to look at us again as trusted advisers.

“Don’t underestimate the benefits you can get from a pro bono case,” she said, adding that it provides valuable experience rather than payment.

Panel members also stressed the importance of serving on local boards such as nonprofits, schools and churches as legal expertise is needed. It also creates awareness of the work performed by lawyers.

 Client ambassadors

Treating clients with respect after their case is over increases the odds that they will become “client ambassadors” who will provide referrals, Jeanine Rispoli said.

In other words, avoid “taking your foot off the gas after the case,” she said.

If you stop taking a client’s calls after the case is over — and only get in touch to remind them of money owed — you may ruin a productive relationship, she said.

“You turned potentially a great referral source into someone that doesn’t like you anymore,” she said. “Your last interaction with that client, that’s what they’re going to remember.

“Keep in mind that this isn’t just a case — this is somebody’s life.”

Lawyers should be cognizant of their interactions as they never know who they will eventually encounter in their work.

“Practicing law is hard, but it’s easy to be nice and be respectful because you never know when that may turn into a client,” Czimskey said.

He added that there’s a chance that “the waitress you shafted is No. 1 on your jury panel.”

Your reputation within the legal field and in the community will affect the business that you attract, Jeanine Rispoli said.

“Try to always think of yourself as an advertisement of your business,” she said.