Posted May 23, 2006 08:45 am CDT
Solo practitioner Laura S. Petelle gives new meaning to the moniker in-house counsel—she always meets clients in their homes, businesses or public places.
Petelle travels throughout a three-county area around Peoria, Ill. She sits in kitchens or living rooms with families, writing notes while discussing estate planning. Breaks are common for homework, after school snacks and playing with dogs. And it’s common for her to be asked to stay for dinner.
She is one of a new breed of solos who have abandoned a traditional office, instead traveling to clients wherever they may be. Cell phones and portable computers keep them in touch and make this practice model possible.
“I’ve been pretty far out into the corn,” says Petelle, a suburban Chicago native who has also met clients in the cozy confines of a local bar.
“They signed the will, they bought me a beer,” Petelle says. As a result, she gained a loyal client and made the kind of personal connection she seeks.
Without an office, overhead is low—keeping costs and fees reasonable. And attorneys like Petelle aren’t wasting time if a client is late or fails to show up at an office.
Although finances played a part in Petelle’s decision to make house calls about two years ago, her real motivation was to better serve her clients’ needs. Petelle found that many people who work 60 to 80 hours a week don’t have time to travel to a lawyer in the middle of the day. “We can do contracts at the kitchen table so they don’t have to get a baby sitter,” she says.
Robert Mittendorff, a solo in the Washington, D.C., area who has made house calls for the past three years, is about to give up his office after more than 18 years. “Clients are much more relaxed and more able to talk about their assets while sitting at the kitchen table,” he says.
Petelle agrees. “People are more willing to tell me stories about who they are than when they just answer questions.”
Visiting clients in their homes also can be a time-saver because they tend to have what’s needed right at hand, whether it be documents for an estate planning interview, copies of life insurance policies, bank statements or information about 401(k) beneficiaries. “They know they are not taking the documents out of their house,” Mittendorff says, “so the chances of losing them on the subway or someone taking them out of their car are slim to none.”
Touring for Gold
Traveling to see clients’ home environments can have unexpected benefits. For example, Petelle visited an elderly client who appeared alert and well-spoken. But she knew something was off when she saw the woman’s messy home. She called the family for help with the woman, who was in the early stages of dementia.
Tom Hall, a Racine, Wis., solo who abandoned a traditional office set-up six months ago, got a special treat when he made a house call—a tour of the Shrinky Dinks factory. He saw how one of his favorite childhood toys was made and learned how it was created from his client, the inventor.
Both Petelle and Hall say they find creative legal solutions after touring their clients’ businesses.
Hall often sends a proposal outlining concerns that occurred to him during the visit. It’s subtle, he says. “I don’t want to come across as a pushy door-to-door salesman.” This way, “they perceive me as someone who takes the time to come to their place and contribute proactive, creative ideas. It kick-starts the relationship,” says Hall, a 17-year law veteran who describes himself as the definition of the word shy.
To overcome this shyness, he had to change his thinking. “What really helped,” he says, “was when I stopped thinking of them as potential clients and I started thinking of them as new friends.”