Care and Feeding of the Law Firm Client
By Jim Calloway
The 10 Commandments of Good Client Relationships
A lawyer isn’t a practicing lawyer without clients — at least that is the case for lawyers in private practice. The purpose of law firms is to advise clients, attempt to solve clients’ legal problems and represent the clients’ interests.
At our recent Opening Your Law Practice program, I spent a great deal of time discussing client communication and improving client satisfaction. The need for these skills should be obvious. We work hard to solve our clients’ problems and give them advice, and our goal is that they be satisfied with their legal services. A satisfied client will return for future legal services and/or refer others to the attorney. A dissatisfied client may just disappear but can also make derogatory comments about the attorney in their community, on the Internet and/or perhaps even transmit these comments to the OBA General Counsel’s office.
Clients often will not be “happy” about the results of their legal matter. In litigation, there are winners and losers. And in marriage dissolutions, notwithstanding the most advantageous settlement or judgment, the party’s lives going forward necessarily means less financial resources and less time spent with their children.
The lawyer should strive for clients who are satisfied that the lawyer exercised his or her best efforts, communicated well and kept the client informed during all stages of the representation and whose advice and predictions proved to be accurate.
So, let’s spend some time examining several aspects of the attorney-client relationship. These principles are applicable to every type of private practice from solo lawyer to large firm.
THE ATTORNEY-CLIENT AGREEMENT
Whether it is called an engagement letter, a contract or fee agreement, all of your new client relationships should be initiated by the execution of a fee agreement. While the Oklahoma Rules of Professional Conduct only require the execution of a written fee agreement in a limited number of matters, good business practices require the execution of a fee agreement in almost every, if not every, attorney-client relationship.
However, the standard attorney-client agreement could often be made a little more “user-friendly.” One could use bold, highlighting and graphic tools to direct focus to the most important provisions and include the matters that the client is most concerned about on the front page of the contract, such as fees and costs. Standard “one size fits all” provisions can be moved toward the back. And if there is one critical or potentially problematic aspect to the contract or a choice the client is making, do not hesitate to leave a location for them to initial that they understand that specific provision.
I was discussing with a defense lawyer that many of his DUI clients opt not to have him represent them on the driver’s license revocation proceeding. That is a decision that some may come to regret later. My advice was that he could better cover his own interests and communicate with his clients by having a completely separate DUI defense contract that noted the consequences of the revocation process and let them initial whether or not they wanted help in that area.
Many small law firms have one attorney-client contract form for criminal and one for civil. They might be better off with several different form contracts.
Larger firms representing corporate clients may present them very lengthy attorney-client contracts. There may have been a time when that impressed the client with the lawyer’s attention to detail, but that is long past. Today’s client will appreciate a shorter and more easy-to-read agreement.
THE INITIAL CLIENT INTERVIEW
There is no need to spend your valuable time hearing a lot of information that you do not need to know if a conflict of interest will keep you from representing the client. The best situation is to find out who the opposing parties are and do a conflict of interest check before scheduling the initial interview. Some clients may be reluctant to provide that detail over the phone, and the next opportunity is for a staff member to take them to a private area when they arrive for their appointment and obtain that information to do the conflict check. If neither of those opportunities work, then the first part of the initial interview with the lawyer will involve getting enough information to do the initial conflicts check.
This means that law firms need to have a formal conflict of interest checking system that can be done automatically on the computer network and doesn’t involve sending around paper memos for all of the lawyers to review and sign off on. This is not to say that is a bad idea for a secondary check. But instant checking before the initial interview will save you time and maybe aggravation over the long run.
Perhaps the greatest variable about whether a client will be satisfied with the representation relates to their expectations. Clients are going to be pleased when their expectations are met and generally frustrated when things do not proceed according to their expectations. While a lawyer may not be able to control the ultimate disposition of a contested matter, the lawyer should certainly set expectations about the client communication and client service, as well as the time frames (aka slowness) of the process.
For example, here is a sample statement that I pass on at the Opening Your Law Practice program: “Some lawyers are criticized for not returning phone calls quickly enough. I am at the courthouse often and sometimes get a lot of phone calls in the same day. Our law firm policy is to attempt to return phone calls within 48 hours.” [Insert your own time frame there.]
This helps the client understand that you may not always be able to return calls as quickly as you would like and sometimes it will not be the same day that they called, even though you will attempt to do that. You should also instruct your staff that if you are unexpectedly detained they can return calls for you to let your clients know it may be a little longer and inquire if there is anything they can do to help.
If you are representing a client in litigation and it may take more than a year to actually have the matter heard, you should let the client know in the initial interview and explain that is one reason why you will always be pursuing settlement even as you prepare for trial.
Another sentence I pass along at Opening Your Law Practice is, “The instant answer is not always the best answer.” As a lawyer, you appreciate that even though you know the law, you always want to check for changes in the law or interpretation before issuing a definitive statement. Your clients do not know that, unless you tell them. Let them know that “I’ll have to get back to you on that” means you are acting in their best interest and not that you are stalling or ignorant.
DURING THE REPRESENTATION
Make the effort to keep the client informed during the representation. Normally this means sending the client copies of all documents generated or received regarding their matter. It also means taking note of periods of inactivity and giving the client brief status reports to let them know how the matter is progressing and when they should expect the next step to occur.
Focus on listening when your client is discussing their legal matter with you. Lawyers should be good listeners. Summarize and repeat back what the client told you to make sure you have it right. You would be surprised at the number of client complaints that center on the lawyer not following client’s directions or understanding what the client’s true goals were. Don’t be that lawyer. Document every conversation with the client in the client file or in your practice management solution.
I distributed the 10 commandments of good client relationships to our members in 2005, so it is certainly time to do it again. It is a good set of reminders in the often busy and stressful practice of law. You will find a link in the side bar to download this in PDF form, which will allow you to print it and post in the break room or pass it along to your staff and lawyers. Feel free to customize this for your needs.
1. Clients are the most important people in our practice — in person, by mail or by phone.
2. Clients are not dependent on us. We are dependent on them.
3. Clients are not an interruption of our work. They are the purpose of it.
4. Clients do us a favor when they call. We are not doing them a favor by serving them.
5. Clients are a part of our business. Do not treat them as outsiders.
6. Clients are not “statistics.” They are flesh-and-blood human beings with feelings and emotions like our own.
7. Clients are not people to argue with or match wits. Nobody ever won an argument with a client.
8. Clients are people who bring us their wants. It is our job to meet those wants.
9. Clients are the lifeblood of this practice.
10. Clients are deserving of the most courteous and attentive treatment we can give them.
Furnished by the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program. Originally prepared by Queensland Law Society of Australia.
Related Online Reading Materials
“Form Letters You and Your Clients Will Love” by Jim Calloway. A classic from 1998 that includes my “rules” for a file closing letter
Mr. Calloway is OBA Management Assistance Program Director. Need a quick answer to a tech problem or help solving a management dilemma? Contact him at 405-416-7008, 1-800-522-8065 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- May 16, 2015 -- Vol. 86, No. 14