How to choose the right bank for your firm

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Published on 8/14/06

Not every lawyer can properly represent every client. Just as logically, not every bank is appropriate for every lawyer. Lawyers should look for a bank that can handle the needs of their firms as well as their personal banking needs, that offers geographic convenience and has a solid reputation in the community.

Solos and small firms in particular may find that a smaller community bank offers them better service than a mega bank.

In reviewing banks, understand the niches in which they specialize -- high-wealth individuals, large commercial accounts, small or mid-sized businesses, and so on. Consider whether they are locally or regionally owned, or whether they are acquisitions of a large national bank.

Get suggestions or recommendations from your accountant, bar association, even other lawyers whom you do not consider to be direct competitors.

Don't shy away from banks that seem to emphasize doing business with other lawyers. The more they understand your business dynamics, the more helpful they can be. And only if they were grossly unethical would they reveal any sensitive information about your practice.

In this era of bank consolidation, when change and personnel turnover can occur quickly, you need deep and wide relationships with a bank. Don't just limit yourself to your loan officer or branch manager. Getting to know a senior manager -- a vice president or even the president of the bank -- will help you in the long run, particularly if the bank is involved in a merger.

Your contacts could not tell you about a merger beforehand because of privacy and confidentiality restrictions. However, once you establish senior relationships, you can prepare for one by asking to be on the short list for early notification. If a merger does occur, ask to be introduced to the new people ASAP. If your bank is doing the acquiring, it puts you in a good position with a stronger bank that has new referral sources. If it is being acquired, you have to know who the new players are.

Even if you have a longstanding relationship with your bank, it doesn't hurt to investigate the competitive landscape. To find out what other banks are doing, talk to other lawyers, look at or similar resources, or have a beauty contest in which you ask other banks to give you a proposal.

If you seek proposals, make sure you compare apples to apples so far as services, and make sure there are no hidden charges for those services.

Learning that your current bank charges more for services than some competitors doesn't mean automatically that you should switch banks -- take a look at the relationship you've built over time. If another bank has submitted a lower bid for services, talk to your bank, share the bids you received, say you value the existing relationship, and ask what the bank can do to maintain it.

Just as you would want your clients to handle a competitive bid situation this way, it behooves you to do it with and for your bank.

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