On Status Symbols and Client Relations

by Jamison Koehler on March 29, 2010

A couple of the lawyers who came to play poker at my house last week have “virtual offices” in D.C., and we were talking about whether clients care about the quality of our office space. Two of the lawyers who do immigration said that their clients couldn’t care less about this type of thing. And we all agreed that clients facing criminal charges usually do.

A tweed jacket, wrinkled shirt, and twisted tie might work for a professor or scientist. But it doesn’t work for a criminal defense lawyer. Given the stakes, people like to believe that they have hired the best lawyer money can buy. If a lawyer has a lot of money, he must have won a lot of cases. If he has won a lot of cases, he must be a good lawyer. And if he is a good lawyer, there is a much better chance he will win your case as well.

Between poker hands, Mirriam Seddiq of the Not Guilty, No Way blog told the story from early in her career in which she went to pick up a client being released from custody in her Toyota Corolla. Instead of being grateful to Seddiq for going out of her way to help him, the client took one look at her car and said:  “You’ve got to be kidding me. This is the car my lawyer drives?”

My wife and I were talking about this recently in connection with my BMW. You see, we used to be rich. Actually, to be accurate, we spent money like we were rich. We lived in an eight-bedroom house on an acre of land in Philadelphia. We owned three luxury cars and sent all three of our children to private school. We had a full time maid. We went skiing in Colorado in the winter, and we vacationed in exotic places like Antigua and the south of Portugal.

My clients noticed this. They noticed my BMW and my custom-made shirts and suits. I couldn’t have told you the difference between a good pair of shoes and a bad pair of shoes but after my wife’s dresser told me I needed to invest in a better pair of shoes, I went out and bought the exact kind of shoe she recommended. The very next day I was at the prison visiting a client.  “Hey guys,” my client said to his cell mates.  “Look at the shoes on my lawyer.”

The halcyon days of Philadelphia are now behind us. It would be nice to blame the change in our fortunes to the poor economy but, in fact, it is really due to some adverse court decisions affecting my wife’s practice. It is also due to some personal choices about the type of law we both practice. Whatever the cause, we now live a much more modest lifestyle. We have a small house in Arlington.  We vacation with our families in Cape Cod and North Carolina. The household help is gone, as are two of our luxury cars.

But I still have my custom-made suits and my BMW. I justify these last extravagances to my wife by telling her that they impress clients.  And, in fact, they do. On the occasion that I visit a client at his or her home or otherwise come into contact with a client outside prison or the courtroom, the client will inevitably comment on the type of car I drive. But that’s just my story. The truth is, I really like the BMW.

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