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Clients as friends as Clients

post # 542 — May 14, 2008 — a Client Relations post

Daniel F. Hunter, Special Counsel at Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP in New York has posed the following questions:

1) Should friends become clients? I am often afraid to ask friends for legal work because it might “taint” our friendship and make me feel like a service provider any time I go over to their house and see their kids, etc.

2) Should clients become friends? When this happens I feel I am less able to give objective advice and I sense that the clients feel like they can ask me legal questions at any time of day or night. For example, if we play squash all they want is free legal advice on the squash courts. Very frustrating.


I would vote ‘no” for both cases. For me, there’s all the difference between knowing how to be friendly with clients and actually being friends who socialize regularly.

But others, I think, might vote differently.

What do the rest of you lawyers, consultants, accountants, financial planners and other advisors out there think?


Eric Fetterolf said:

Why would you send your friends to someone whom you believe does a poorer job than you do at what you do? Why would you take care of your clients better if you didn’t know them socially? The question in the above article hinges on the assumption that we are out in our profession looking only after ourselves. But professionals look after their clients and are rewarded for how well they take care of their clients.

This question really depends on whether you are your profession or are simply doing a job. If you truly believe that you are making a difference, creating greater value then the $$$ you charge for your services, why would you exclude your friends? If you truly don’t believe that you are creating greater value than the $$$ you charge, then you would want to exclude the your friends.

posted on May 14, 2008

Nick Mallett said:

As a lawyer, with a lot of clients who I regard as friends, and some friends who have become clients, I believe firmly that you should not solicit work from friends as it tends to complicate and jeopardise a personal relationship. A relationship of friendship should be entirely discretionary, but bringing in the commercial angle creates a different tension. I recognise there is a challenge when you see a friend with a problem to which you know the answer. I prefer then to suggest to the friend what the answer might be, and that s/he raises it with her usual adviser. If s/he insists that you handle the problem, I would prefer to hand it to a trusted colleague.

Scenario 2 is less of a problem for me. If approached outside the business environment (defining that might be a problem in these BlackBerry days!) I might react in a variety of ways, from “I’ll call you from the office tomorrow” at perhaps one extreme, to the other, where I will adopt an appropriately serious manner and suggest we go somewhere we can talk in private because this is a serious matter. That often causes friend/client to say s/he’ll call me tomorrow.

So for once I disagree with Mr M, but recognise that it takes firm handling.

posted on May 14, 2008

Michael Travis said:

I avoid working for friends and developing friendships with clients. It can be messy, and has potential to undermine the business relationship if the client comes to feel he can’t provide tough feedback, apply pressure, etc.

One notable exception: I had a large client who was a lifelong friend, and I did work for him until he retired from his business. We had a special relationship that, at least in my experience, was very unusual. Work was work, play was play, and there was an inpenetrable wall between the two. It was like two separate relationships with the same person.

posted on May 14, 2008

Jerry Tice said:

David, as a management consultant I whole heartedly agree with you on both counts. There are of course those rare individuals who can completely compartmentalize their lives so that there is no overlap between personal life and business life. These individuals can keep their objectivity intact so that one minute he is telling his client that the house is falling down around his head and in the next breath ask him to play a round of golf. Most of us are not fortunate enough to have that ability. For us, we should draw a clear distinction between client and friend. I am not advocating abandoning your friends in their time of need by any means. Friends help friends in their time of need. By turning friends into clients when they need help the most, it could be considered taking advantage of them when they are vulnerable.

posted on May 14, 2008

Johnette Hassell said:

Like Eric, I wouldn’t want to send a friend to someone less skilled than I.

I do computer forensic and e-discovery investigations. Such investigations can be scary for the owners of the computers being investigated (!) and I would never send a friend to anyone else. However, since litigation is usually involved, I sign on as a consulting expert. If reports or testimony become necessary, the attorney and I decide whether I should testify based on my findings and appearance of bias.

As for clients becoming friends, those on the side opposing my client usually had the investigation forced on them. They rarely want me as a friend. For those that retain me, there is often a bond of shared discovery, but that is superficial so I always leave it at that.


posted on May 15, 2008

John Flood said:

I think #2 is inevitable. If you are a rainmaker, how can you avoid not becoming friends with clients? In some respects the relationship you are developing is like a guanxi relationship in China where the relationship helps promote business but has strong affective and normative elements as well. There is reciprocity and a desire to build long term relationships. Some form of friendship may be impossible to prevent.

posted on May 15, 2008

Paul Brown said:

Since much of my work is with family-owned companies, I frequently use the following story to describe the tension that may come up when a parent has to address his/her successor.

After several years the oldest son was becoming increasingly frustrated with his father. Though he talked about retiring, the dad seemed unable to leave the business; effectively handing it over to his first born. In his – the dad’s – mind, the son was not ready and may never be ready to effectively lead the company. In fact, his key managers had been telling him about his poor work habits; his lack of judgement; etc. The only thing the son had going for him was the owner’s last name.

One Friday afternoon the dad pulled his son aside and asked him to come by the house the next morning. “This is it,” the son thought. “He’s finally going to retire and leave me the company.”

The next morning the son went to the dad’s house where coffee and rolls were placed on the table on the back deck. Next to the refreshments were two hats.

As the two men sat down, the dad picked up a hat with the single word, “BOSS” written on it. “Son,” he said, “Everyone of my managers, women and men who have worked with me for years, have told me about your work habits. You come in late. You leave early. You have cost the company thousands of dollars because you won’t listen. Son, I hate to do this but,” he paused, “I’m going to have to let you go.”

The son, of course, was shocked. This was not what he had in mind. Before he could respond the dad picked up the second hat and placed it on his head. This hat too, had a single word written on it: “Dad.”

After putting the hat on the dad reached out to his son, placing his hand on his shoulders. “Son,” he said, “I just heard that you were fired from your job. I want you to know that your mother and I will do everything we can to help you throught this time.”

Can we have friends with our clients? I would say yes, as long as we are willing to wear the appropriate hat at the appropriate time.

posted on May 16, 2008

Chris said:

I do think it is possible to have friends as clients and vice versa. However, I do think you need to have some sort of separation.

I have a friend that I have known for about 10 years. We sold some consulting services into his organisation and he did certainly have some influence in this. We are delivering work in his area and things are going well but there have also been problems.

During work we discuss ‘work’ and at the weekend we don’t.

Also I have found that some of my working relationships with clients have turned into real friendships. For me this is part of being a trusted advisor and enables the clients to ‘buy’, rather than me having to ‘sell’….



posted on May 16, 2008

John Shaver said:

Sounds like a typical attorney (or accountant, consultant, whatever)…..always worried about saying the wrong thing or somehow being held responsible for a personal opinion.< ?xml:namespace prefix =" o" ns =" "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office"" />

I have several customers who have become friends and they never ask about business outside of the office.

Concerning friends who become customers. “Tainting our friendship”?? Wow….get a life!

posted on May 16, 2008

Wally Bock said:

The majority of my long term clients have become friends. But they are “business friends.” I know about them and they about me, but we do not share on the level that my personal friends do. Going the other way, I will not take on a personal friend as a client. I’ve found that my coaching/consulting takes the relationship in unpredictable ways and may also affect our relationships with others. I don’t offer this as a general rule. It’s what I’ve found works for me.

posted on May 17, 2008

Tim said:

Great article, I think that its always a catch 22 when you get into either of these situations. I have the firm belief that if it is my profession then regardless of whom it is, they are treated like a customer. This way I dont decrease the value of my work in anyones eyes.

posted on May 19, 2008

Warren Miller said:

Great topic, David.

I agree w/Michael Travis and those who asked rhetorically why we should send a friend to someone who can’t do the job as well as we do. We do business w/friends on occasion. However, for them we don’t do our work, or our processes, any differently than we do for anyone else. Friendship is friendship, and business is business, and we make that crystal-clear. If there is any hemming and hawing, we back away.

So long as our friend is someone who recognizes and respects the concept of boundaries–and from our personal knowledge of her/him in, for instance, family relationships–we should know if that recognition and respect are there, then doing business w/friends should not be a problem. It never has been for us.

However, I hasten to add that we have declined to do work with several friends because of the aforementioned “boundaries problem.” If they can’t draw those lines clearly in their family relationships, they’re unlikely to be able to draw them in their relationship with us. That’s a prescription for disaster. We learned that lesson the hard way early on, lost a close friend, and have never repeated that miserable and painful experience.

In situations where we think the boundary issue exists, we just say we’re very busy and, “Besides, we value our friendship with you too much to jeopardize it with money.” We then try to steer them to two or three service-providers whom they can choose from. BUT we also are explicit that we make no guarantees that they will be happy with the results they get from whomever they choose, and we resolutely refuse to help them choose. It has to be their decision. If we get involved in the choice process, then what we were trying to avoid in the first place–the boundary issue–is likely to smack us in the snoot. Nothing has ever boomeranged to us doing it this way.

posted on May 19, 2008

Glenn Mickle said:

It can be tricky to judge and I like to take each inquiry on it’s merits. If a true friend asks for help I have a choice: Take them on as a ‘friend in need’ or treat them as a ‘normal client’. It’s important to make this distinction in my own head and then make my decision clear to them too. Often a true friend wont accept preferential treatment and insists on being treated as a ‘client’ i.e. using proper procedures, performing relevant tasks and paying full fees.

If they are looking for ‘mates-rates’, or I could be seen as taking advantage of their situation, I would refuse the assignment and help them find an alternative.

Clients who become friends have usually migrated into the “don’t care what it costs, just want you to do it’ category. Refusing them once they’re in this zone can offend, particularly if it was OK to take their money in previous dealings. In these cases I would price in advance, and deliver an unexpected bonus at the end. But always seek pre-approval for the task and price.

posted on May 20, 2008

John Shaver said:

Sounds like a typical attorney (or accountant, consultant, whatever)…..always worried about saying the wrong thing or somehow being held responsible for a personal opinion.

I have several customers who have become friends and they never ask about business outside of the office.

Concerning friends who become customers: “Tainting our friendship”?? Wow….get a life!

posted on May 20, 2008

Paul Brown said:

John – although there may be some relevance to your comments, the truth is I (and it appears that many others on this string) struggle to maintain a high level of ethics whereby I try to stay far away from the appearance of being less than what my clients request of me; i.e. an objective voice helping them through the challenge(s) they are facing. My clients hire me (in part) because of this (my objectivity) AND because of my expertise.

Like you, I have several clients who have become friends. Unlike you, we ask one another about business when we are out running; out golfing; out motorcycling. We do this because our business is a big part of our respective lives and, as a result, its never far from our minds.

I go back to what, I believe, most have opined: it’s possible to have clients as friends but it requires a degree of balance and honesty.

posted on May 20, 2008

Lance Dunkin said:

I wrote a post on my blog recently about co-mingling (including friends and business). The friends section is mostly regarding employees, but still applicable.


I tend to agree with Daniel. My degree emphasis is in Tax, and while I do not practice specifically in that area, I often get calls from friends and family members, that rarley talk to me otherwise, around April 10th.

Also, I have noticed in the direct sales community (financial products, jewerly, etc) that people often distance themselves from their friends–whom they call a “warm market”–by being overwhelming about these products that can benefit “everyone.”

Additionaly, I agree with Daniel in becoming friends with existing clients, there is a huge potential for “scope creep,” as it is tempting for them to ask consutling questions in casual settings.

Do I think you absolutley should not make friends with existing clients or should not consult existing friends? No. I think business will always be about relationships.

However, as with any friendship, appropriate boundaries need to be set. “I really want to play sqwash with you today, but I also need a break from the legal world. Can we talk about things other than work?” Or, “I am glad to bring you on as a client because I think we can add significant value to your business, but it is only fair to my partners that we work off defined project scopes and bill accordingly.”

posted on May 21, 2008

Dmitriy Abrosimov said:

In Russia in legal sphere attitudes between people less discharged, therefore when _separate_ clients as a friends and on the contrary is a norm and often meets. Badly when friends-clients start to abuse friendly attitudes in business. Business is business and indulgences are given only up to the certain degree (certain border) – more time for case of the friend, it is less to make profitability for service, etc. No more the certain border, when the friend-client to become burden for me and my business. Excuse for my English =)

posted on May 21, 2008

Paul Signorelli said:

Nearly 20 years ago, I had the great fortune to work with a fund-raising consultant while I was serving as Executive Director for the organization. The professional relationship grew into a treasured friendship which has lasted far longer than the relationship we had with that nonprofit organization, and we came full circle recently by becoming part of a small associates group of consultants where work and friendship do not need to be mutually exclusive. I believe there are plenty of situations where professional work could not be successfully mixed with friendships–your post and some of the comments provide great examples–but I don’t think this is a one-answer-fits-all situation.

posted on May 26, 2008

Neal Horwitz said:

To truly have friends is to have mutual obligations with each other- common values, common past, common interests and likes, and common enemies as well.

I think a lot of the posts are defining mostly acquaintances, not friends, and all the obligations thereof. To quote Joseph Epstein on acquaintances: “Someone you may have known a long while, but never plan to meet unless for some specific reason; you may or may not meet again, no obligation on either side other than recognition and civility.”

In a day and age where it is much harder to do the “work” required to establish and maintain friends, strikes me that many people have most of their “friends” through work anyhow.

My answer is that one can do both, as most are acquaintances anyhow- best not to share ‘affairs of the heart’, if you will, but leave that to a smaller circle of old friends.

posted on June 3, 2008

Mackenzie said:

Managing to define a line between friend and business can be difficult, but I think it’s possible to do so.

In order for that to happen though, both sides would have to be absolutely sure to keep them separate. Which I think is, inhumanly possible.

So, I’d have to say no.

posted on June 9, 2008

Mary Reak said:

It is possible, of course. It requires self-respect and the ability to say “no” without loosing respect for yourself and the other person.

I am sure that it is related to where your focus is

best wishes


posted on February 7, 2010