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How to Keep Clients Without Even Trying

By William Tetley, Q.C.

(A slightly edited version of this article was published in Fairplay magazine on November 13, 2003 at p. 33. A French translation of the same article was published in the Revue de droit commercial, maritime, aérien et des transports (the Revue Scapel) vol. 81 (April, May and June 2004) at p. 68)

Lawyers sometimes seem to spend as much time worrying about how to get and keep clients as in practicing law. It is not quite as easy as getting married and staying married as suggested by the movie star Zsa Zsa Gabor, who had many husbands and marriages and apparently wrote a book entitled "How to Get a Man, How to Keep a Man and How to Get Rid of a Man".

Herewith one suggestion on how to get and keep clients in the practice of maritime law. And it should not be a surprise to young lawyers that the lessons one learns at one's Mother's knee are still valid in the practice of law.

Being obliged as a child to thank each aunt and uncle for Christmas and birthday presents by an individual letter and doing it punctually spilled over into my law practice. I always answered the receipt of any piece of business with an immediate letter, which began "Thank you for having sent the above claim." I would then sit down to work and get an opinion out posthaste, which always again began "Thank you for the sending the above claim…"

Fresh from the Bar examinations in 1952, I joined the Montreal law firm of Walker Martineau Chauvin Walker & Allison (now the giant firm of Fasken Martineau & DuMoulin) and in those days, it was clear that, even in a major law firm, one had to be able to attract clients in order to succeed.

I slowly built up a marine practice, which was new to the firm and it was clear that clients wanted some acknowledgement of appreciation, as well as quick efficient service. This was borne out to me when about ten years later I was in the London office of the Royal Liverpool claims department and the Vice-President and Chief Claims Manager, Mr. Pedersen, who was ardently courted by claims lawyers from around the world, said that the Chief Clerk wished to see me. I imagined that the Chief Clerk was a lesser official with rolled up sleeves and a green eyeshade and was surprised to learn that he was in the head office in Liverpool. I tried to suggest to Mr. Pedersen that I could not take a day off for such a trip but he insisted: "The Chief Clerk wishes to see you." Mr. Pedersen had even chosen the train to take and said I would be met at the station in Liverpool.

The next day I took the train and began to become apprehensive when met in Liverpool by the Chief Clerk's car and chauffeur. At that time, Royal Liverpool was perhaps the world's largest liability insurance company and was sending all its Canadian cargo claims to me and was even diverting some business, which had previously gone through New York. At the Head Office, the Chief Clerk turned out to be a distinguished and genial gentleman, wearing a Saville Row suit. I later learned that he was in charge of all the company operations, domestic and international. He announced that we would be having lunch with the President and Chairman. We by-passed the employees' restaurant, the senior employees' restaurant and the directors' restaurant, going to the top of the massive Royal Liverpool building to a restaurant shared only by the Chairman, the President and the Chief Clerk.

By this time I was very apprehensive and was wondering which file, back in Canada, I had not handled properly, when the Chairman said "I suppose, Mr. Tetley, you wish to know why we invited you to lunch." I mumbled incoherently and he went on. "It is because, of all the Royal Liverpool correspondents in the world, including Europe, America and Asia, you are the only one to immediately acknowledge all claims sent to you, and you are the only one to thank us and then get your opinion out, without delay."

Lunch was a joy thereafter. I changed my mind about not having a drink and was even persuaded to enjoy another and the excellent wine as well. Eventually I was driven back to the station and then sailed on by train to London in a state of the highest spirits.

Prof. William Tetley QC, practiced law from 1952 to 1968, in what is now Fasken Martineau, DuMoulin, was in the Quebec National Assembly from 1968-1976 and from 1976 to the present has taught law at McGill University. He is Counsel to Langlois Kronström Desjardins of Montreal and Quebec City.

E-mail: william [dot] tetley [at] mcgill [dot] ca (William Tetley)
Web: http://www.mcgill.ca/maritimelaw

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