In today’s tough business world, being a good lawyer on its own will rarely take you into partnership. After a few years’ PQE it is business development that is likely to be the prime measure of your contribution at many firms.
So, you want to make it into partnership and need to bring in work? What better place to start than with your family and friends?
It is a strange feature of life that, as you get older, the people close to you have a habit of morphing into people who are important. Take that square kid with spots and glasses who never went out with anyone, for example. He became the principal trader in a hedge fund and is now worth several million pounds. If you are a divorce lawyer you might want to act on his second divorce.
And what about your mate from uni who scraped a 2(1) despite never going to lectures? He’s now head of investment banking at a huge bank. He might have a mandate for you.
As an employment lawyer I have enjoyed reconnecting with any number of acquaintances in a professional context - it’s just a pity they had to get sacked before tracking me down.
The question is, do you treat these people as your old friends or like any other client?
The answer is simple. Just as it is said that the lawyer who acts for themself has a fool for a client, the lawyer who does not treat their mate in the same way as any other client is a fool.
Friends and family can be a legitimate route to business (and you would be wrong to ignore them as a source of instructions), but unless you set your business dealings with them off on a professional footing the wheels will, in my experience, rapidly come off.
Of course, the temptations to do otherwise are endless. For example, you ordinarily take money on account from clients, but you choose not to for your friend. It just feels awkward. Wrong - it is a hell of a lot less awkward than suing them for debt recovery at the end of the matter or, equally bad, trying to explain to your managing partner why you made an exception to the rule.
It is the same with rates. Invariably acquaintances will ask you if you have a special rate for friends and family. The answer to this question should either be “No,” or “Yes, actually I do have a different rate for mates - it’s twice the normal rate because friends and family are twice as much work”.
There is also a tendency to trust friends and family more and therefore not to be as formal about your interactions with them and take fewer attendance notes.
Ultimately, however, this is a highly regulated profession and people can still turn on you when they think they have received poor advice or haven’t understood what you have said.
Moreover, just because they have called a friend in a time of need, it does not mean they do not want a professional service. Even if you have agreed to do something on the cheap, never compromise on quality. Happy clients who are also friends are a great source of business and few clients remember the price, but many remember poor service.
The moral of the story is this: if you provide your friends and family with the same excellent service on the same terms you would offer a client who came through a commercial contact, you will serve both them and yourself better than if you try to do them a favour.
You will have a greater chance of repeat instructions or referrals, you will have protected the firm’s finances and indemnity policy and, best of all, you will have advanced your career. Step off that path and there is nothing but trouble.