Inside Experts: How to lose a client in one minute

A few simple words are all it takes to sour a deal.

As general counsel for an Internet company, I handle many legal issues. I often rely on outside counsel to take on certain tasks and assist me with legal questions. When interviewing outside counsel, I take into account qualifications, communication skills, quality of work and, most importantly, an understanding of my client's business. But I’m also looking for a firm that believes in the big picture, not only for my client, but for our relationship.

My company had a few (what I considered) basic legal questions, and I decided it was time to branch out from our usual firms. We consulted with a few attorneys hoping to research one specific issue and start a long-term relationship.

Based on a recommendation, I set a meeting with one firm. The introductory call went well. The attorney seemed qualified to advise on the subject matter, able to understand my client’s legal and business needs and communicated with me in a professional manner. In this 20-minute call, the attorney had met all of my requirements for an outside counsel. Just as I was about to hang up the phone, the attorney asked where to send the bill.

I was taken aback. We never discussed rates or a fee agreement. In fact, in my tenure as in house counsel, I had never been billed for an initial consultation. I gave the attorney my e-mail address.

The attorney immediately e-mailed me a follow up. The attorney thanked me for the opportunity to speak with me and said the bill was on its way. I wrote back that in the past, I've contacted many attorneys in an effort to find the best fit for my company's situation. I told the attorney that this is the first time I was expected to pay fees, not previously disclosed, at the conclusion of an initial call. However, I would pay for services rendered.

I hoped that the attorney would reconsider the bill and that I would be able to reconsider my soured impression. I hoped the bill would never come. But about a month later it did. And my company paid it.

For 20 minutes, I was impressed with the attorney with whom I spoke. My company and I were excited about the prospect of starting a new long-term relationship with a law firm that comprehended our goal. In one minute, however, all of that was thrown away. The attorney's short-sighted view of legal fees and, in turn, how to generate business, proved to me that I had to continue my legal search. We are currently working with another firm.

Contributing Author

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Sarah Feingold

Sarah Feingold is general counsel of Etsy. Since 2007, she has handled the company's legal matters while providing accessible legal information to a growing community...

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