As one of my partners observed, clients are a bit like various kinds of house pets and act according to their species.

There are dogs that willingly follow people they trust where ever they go.  There are cats who attach themselves to a place and, although they may feign interest when someone departs, they have little allegiance to any specific person.  Then there are rabbits who constantly hop from place to place, almost on whim, in hopes of improving their situation.

While the analogy is not perfect, you get the picture.  There are some clients who are going to follow a departing partner no matter what the law firm does. At the same time, there are clients who have no ties to a lawyer or a law firm and are constantly seeking the best situation.  This need not involve money.  Clients sometimes change lawyers because the grass is greener or their feel they will get a fresh perspective from a new firm.  Finally, there are the cats that elect to remain with the firm even if their engagement partner leaves.

There is not a lot a firm can do to retain the rabbits.  They feel it is in their advantage to start afresh with every new transaction or litigation matter.  It may be that their general counsels have ADHD or just wanderlust, but they feel lawyers work in their best interests when the law firm’s position is not too secure and the relationship is not too close.

How do you know if you have a rabbit for a client?  Inquire about their past three matters.  If they used three different law firms you’re probably dealing with a rabbit.  You will be tempted to tie the bunny down with fee discounts or lavish entertainment – forget it.  Better lawyers than you have tried and failed.  Save your energy and enthusiasm, charge them full rates and enjoy the ride while it lasts.

There used to be a folk song about “The cat came back, the very next day, and no matter what I did to it, it wouldn’t stay away.”  I have two cats (and I love them dearly) that spend every night snuggled up against me no matter how often I kick them off the bed.  Now, before you call P.E.T.A. on me, the point is that law firms can and do treat clients who are cats with what is, at best, benign neglect.  And it works until someone comes along with a hand full of catnip.  Before I go too far in fracturing the analogy, the lesson is when you have a true-blue client, make sure you devote as much attention to it as you do kicking it out of bed.  This is important because when cats leave, they never come back.

When you bring in a lateral, all the clients that come along are probably dogs.  And, if they followed the lawyer once, they will probably follow him or her again.  But dogs can be turned into cats (now this analogy is going way too far) especially if they have a history of being mistreated.  Most clients’ patience for moving between firms is limited, regardless of how close their ties to their lawyers.

There are three things a law firm can do to change a client’s ties from the lawyer to the firm.

First, as the lateral comes into the firm, pay attention to the clients that require special attention – where a capabilities presentation is required to cinch their switching firms with the lawyer, or there are unique billing specifications that must be met.  These are clients that the lateral is not confident about and will certainly be in play when the lawyer decides to leave your firm.

Second, do everything in your power to avoid the client’s work being siloed with just a few lawyers who are dependent upon the lateral for their work.  This may be hard to do and you will probably get a lot of resistance from the lateral, but it is worth the effort to spread the work around the firm as much as possible.

Third, don’t go down without out a fight.  When an attorney announces he or she is leaving, go after his dogs with a full court press.  This is the best business development opportunity you will ever have, but many law firms miss it completely out of a fear of being “ungentlemanly.”  Not only is it likely that you will retain at least one of the clients but you will send the message to other lawyers considering changing firms that there will be some pain involved.

It’s true, you probably won’t change many dogs into cats but the process will help you understand your clients better, hone your lawyers’ business development skills and make your entire firm more competitive.