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    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 79, No. 8, August 2006

    Design Client Agreements as Marketing Documents

    Learn how to turn a potential obstacle into a powerful, persuasive marketing piece by using these proven marketing principles to create your client agreement.

    by Trey Ryder

    Contracts have different effects on prospective clients (prospects). The more familiar people are with lawyers, the less intimidated they may be by your agreement. The less familiar they are with lawyers and retention agreements, the more your contract may give them heartburn.

    Don't underestimate the importance of your agreement as both a legal document and a marketing document. If prospects aren't comfortable with your agreement, they may not sign it - and all your prior marketing efforts will have been for naught. You want prospects to perceive your agreement as the next logical step in the process, not as a cement wall that stops them in their tracks.

    Regardless of whether you use a contract, letter of understanding, or engagement letter, make sure its quality is equal to your best work - because, often, your agreement is the first example of your work that your prospect sees.

    Make Sure Your Client Agreement Is ...

    • Easy to understand. When prospects don't understand what they're reading, their skepticism increases. You enjoy a much higher level of credibility when prospects clearly understand what you ask them to sign. Include legal terms when you must, but also help your prospect by defining those terms in plain English. Certainly, your agreement must be legally sufficient, but be careful not to go overboard with minute details unless you have a compelling reason for doing so.
    • Easy to read. Don't use small print; it creates the impression that you're hiding something. Prospects feel more comfortable when the print is large and fonts are easy to read. A one-page agreement of fine print arouses much more suspicion than a three-page agreement that uses big type and is easy to read.
    • Crisp and clean. If you have a sharp, clean agreement, prospects expect the work you do on their behalf also will be sharp and clean. A smudged agreement or a poor photocopy reflects poorly on you. Print a new, clean laser copy for each client. To make the agreement appear more personal, type the client's name and address into each agreement, rather than just filling in the blanks.
    • Appealing to the eye. Take special care to make your agreement pleasing to the eye. Leave adequate margins on the page. Insert one line of white space between paragraphs. And keep paragraphs relatively short. If a paragraph is six lines or more in length, divide it into two paragraphs because short paragraphs are more inviting than long paragraphs.

    Your Agreement's Content

    • Use a conversational tone. Word your agreement so its tone is consistent with the tone you use in conversation. A client once told me that my agreement "didn't sound like me." That was the first time I realized that agreements could and should sound like the person they represent.
    • Describe negatives in a positive light. If your agreement contains things your prospect might perceive in a negative way, explain why you include those terms. For example, in my engagement letter, I specify that I do not provide certain routine secretarial services. First, I explain that this is done for greater efficiency. Second, I offer to help my clients find someone to perform these functions, if they don't want to handle this work in house. And third, I offer the secretarial services I use at cost so clients can use the same people I depend on, if they wish.
    • Avoid complex agreements for simple matters. Several years ago I hired an out-of-state lawyer. During the hiring process, I interviewed more than a dozen lawyers by telephone. One lawyer sent me a 12-page double-spaced agreement. My immediate conclusion was that this lawyer was my adversary rather than my ally. Another lawyer I spoke with _ the one I ended up hiring _ said he would draft a brief letter of understanding. In two paragraphs, he said everything that needed to be said. I signed and returned the letter with my check, and he did an excellent job.
    • Proofread every word from beginning to end. I've seen many lawyers' agreements with words left out, misspellings, and so on. Remember: Your agreement should represent your best work. A mistake reflects poorly on you. Make sure you're proud of your agreement. Look it over carefully several times.

    When Referring to Your Contract ...

    • Call it an "agreement." The word "agreement" emphasizes that your contract reflects how you and your client have agreed to work together and what both of you will do.
    • Promote client understanding. Point out that you wrote the agreement in plain English so your prospect will understand every word.
    • Downplay your agreement's complexity. Describe your agreement as "simple" so you start shaping your prospect's perception even before he or she sees it.
    • Call it your standard agreement. Doing so implies that everyone routinely signs it without objection, almost as a formality.
    • Explain cancellation terms. If you offer an escape clause, emphasize how easily your prospect can cancel the agreement. Your prospect feels more at ease when he or she knows how to get out from under your contract.

    Conclusion

    When you use proven marketing principles to create your client agreement, you help turn a potential obstacle into a powerful, persuasive marketing piece. Plus, when your prospect reviews an agreement that's easy to read and understand, your prospect's fears melt away and your credibility soars.

    Trey Ryder is a law firm consultant who educates attorneys about marketing. He can be reached at com trey treyryder treyryder trey com.

    Wisconsin Lawyer




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