As we know from the studies about first impressions, people form an opinion about you within seconds, and changing that opinion can be an uphill battle. But we sometimes forget that our clients form equally fast opinions about our offices. If your lobby is dirty, old, or unkempt, your office is definitely leaving a poor first impression. Clients may even wonder about your competency as an attorney.
You don’t have to spend a fortune to create a welcoming space, but what your lobby says about your firm can have a significant impact on your practice. Take a good hard look at your lobby, and if it falls short, follow these tips to give it a face-lift.
1. Keep it clean and tidy.
One particular law firm that I visited sticks in my mind because of its lobby. My first thought was, “How can this possibly be a lawyer’s office?” There were stains on the carpet, and the furniture looked like it had been picked up on the sidewalk. The wood paneling was separating, and everything was in disarray. None of us wants our office to be remembered for things like this. Here’s the bottom line: if your lobby looks neglected, your clients might wonder whether you neglect their cases.
The problem is that we can become so accustomed to our own lobby that we fail to notice that the carpet has become dirty or that the upholstery is beginning to look ragged. Your carpet may simply need cleaning, or you may need to invest in a new floor covering. You can find reasonably priced furniture if you need to replace a few pieces. In fact, you might find a firm that’s going out of business, which will allow you to purchase its furniture inexpensively. Just make sure you buy furniture that is in good shape and isn’t dated.
2. What does your lobby say about your firm?
Is it appropriate for your type of practice? If your lobby setup looks cheap, a client may wonder whether your practice is successful. On the other hand, if your lobby is as opulent as a hotel, a client may worry that your bill is going to be exorbitant. Try to strike a balance between too much and not enough.
Think about your clients and the kind of lobby that would work for them. In our family law practice, we go for a feeling of safety and comfort with soft music and lighting that isn’t too harsh. We want to help people relax. So, the kind of practice will dictate the décor of your lobby. If your clients are primarily bankers, a more classic and conservative décor would help them to feel most comfortable. If, on the other hand, you represent clients in the music business, you might want a lobby with a contemporary feeling. Bear in mind, however, that contemporary furniture will become dated faster than classic, traditional pieces.
3. Pay attention to your magazines.
Have you ever been in a law firm lobby or doctor’s office where the magazines were several years old? There may have been stacks and stacks of magazines that ran the gamut from Sports Illustrated to Good Housekeeping. Depending on your array of clients, this might make sense, but don’t subscribe to magazines at random. Our clients tend to be upper-middle income, so we subscribe to Architectural Digest and Conde Nast Traveler. Choose publications based on the types of clients you serve, and only keep a few recent issues in the lobby at a time.
Most importantly, ask your receptionist or another staff member to tidy up the magazines several times a day. Little can ruin a beautiful lobby more than magazines lying on the floor and scattered all over the furniture.
4. Choose artwork carefully.
We bought used prints from a company that went out of business, and while they were great for a while, they eventually faded out. Instead, try purchasing original art from a local artist. It connects you with the community and is often quite inexpensive. If a member of your staff is a good photographer, you can even frame his or her work for a personal touch. Another option is a website such as www.etsy.com, which sells many different types of art directly from the artists.
Feel free to include recent awards on the walls if your firm has been recognized. These say a great deal about your practice and can tell clients quickly who you are. We received an award from a bank and from a parenting magazine and display them in our lobby. Of course, if your last award was a few years ago, you might want to remove it unless it’s particularly prestigious. Otherwise, your clients could wonder why you haven’t been recognized more recently.
5. Take care of your plants.
Live plants are generally a positive element in both formal and casual lobbies, but you need to tend to them regularly. Dead or dying plants are a definite turnoff, and overgrowth can get in the way of the furniture. Either designate a staff member to remove dead leaves, prune overgrowth, and water plants regularly, or hire an inexpensive plant service.
This kind of service is especially helpful if your lobby doesn’t have any windows. It can be difficult to maintain plants in a space without natural light, so a plant service can choose varieties that thrive in low light. It can also rotate the plants to make sure they always look fresh. Whatever you do, never fill your lobby with plastic or silk plants, as they collect dust and look cheap.
6. Add a fountain or fish tank.
We have found that fountains are soothing for our clients, and they’re also a beautiful design element in a lobby. You do have to fill fountains every day and guard against spilling.
Fish tanks are an alternative to fountains, but they also require regular maintenance. You don’t want dead fish floating at the top. There are services that will maintain your fish tank for you as well, and they generally don’t charge a great deal.
7. Don’t ignore the lighting.
Our family law practice uses lower lighting to create a relaxing atmosphere, but your lighting should be appropriate for your brand of client. If you expect clients to read a lot in your lobby, you will need adequate light. If the lighting in your lobby is low, use lighter colors for the carpet and upholstery to prevent the room from becoming too dark.
If there is natural light, pay attention to the way the sun tends to shine into the room at different times of the day. Try to arrange the furniture to prevent glare on a particular chair, for example. If you have little natural light and overhead lighting, you may want to consider a couple of attractive lamps to provide enough reading light.
8. Consider the furniture arrangement.
Think about whether the way your lobby is configured works well for you. This includes the seating arrangement. What works best for your firm—couches or individual chairs? Do your clients tend to arrive individually or in groups? My firm originally had couches in the lobby, but we discovered that only one person sat on a couch at a time. Therefore, we decided to replace the couches with individual chairs. If your clients tend to arrive in pairs or groups, you might arrange the seating into small conversational groupings.
In our firm, we have a window for the receptionist much like a doctor’s office. A doorbell alerts her when someone arrives, and she greets the clients, offers them a drink, and returns to her work. In this way, she can deal with confidential telephone calls without being overheard by anyone in the lobby. This also allows us to utilize our receptionist’s time rather than have her sit and do nothing but answer phones most of the day. Of course, if your receptionist isn’t in the lobby, someone needs to greet all clients the minute they walk in the door.
9. Make sure sound is not an issue.
Is your lobby set up so that clients can hear confidential phone calls from within the office? If so, you can use music, fountains, or fish tanks to prevent conversations from reaching the lobby area. Be careful about the level of noise, however. Clients should be able to hold conversations with one another.
10. Ask for help.
You might be able to hire a decorator or interior design consultant for less than you think. Choose someone who has designed lobby spaces before and has examples to show you. If hiring a professional isn’t an option, scour design magazines and the websites of interior design firms online. You will find photos of lobbies that you can emulate in your own space.
To make an assessment, sit in your lobby for at least a half hour during the workday to get a real feeling of what it’s like to wait there. Ask friends or colleagues to visit your lobby and offer you honest opinions. Then, gather your ideas for changes, and ask for opinions on new possibilities.
Investing in a lobby that will make a good impression on your clients is well worth the money and time. And if you buy quality classic furniture and artwork, you won’t have to redecorate again for a long time.
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This article originally appeared in Family Advocate, a publication of the American Bar Association.