Once again, one of the most well-attended practice sessions at the State Bar of Texas Annual meeting was Claude Ducloux’s presentation on “Client Relations: Building Strong and Effective Relationships”. Ducloux has long preached that the secret to any successful practice is to create strong initial client relationships built upon trust and reasonable expectations between the lawyer and client - skills which are often overlooked by law schools. In case you missed the State bar of Texas Annual Meeting, or weren’t able to catch this session, we are passing along all the valuable information we learned about client relations from Claude Ducloux.
Having the right skills in your chosen profession matters, but there is more to the equation than just what you can do for your client. You also need to relate to the client. In the medical profession they call it "bedside manner," and it's important for attorneys, too.
Lawyers tend to be problem solvers before anything else, but that can sometimes cause them big problems in other areas. For example, 85% of legal malpractice claims are unintended, and they come about because of poor client relationship and interaction skills.
Clients usually aren't happy to be in an attorney's office. They're only there because of a serious legal complaint against someone else, or because something bad has happened to them. If you don't treat them with patience and understanding, they aren't going to recommend you and they may even choose to work with someone else. You'll lose business.
Poor Communication is a Big Client Grievance
One of the main complaints clients have about attorneys is communication. They say they are neglected, because their attorney doesn't respond to their attempts at communication and doesn't keep in touch or keep them "in the loop." Other grievances include disputes about fees, misuse of retainers, mishandling documents and disclosures, and conflicts in personality. But the top grievance on the list is always communication.
To keep clients, you need to communicate from the very first day. Be fair and honest with your clients, and they'll stick with you. Respond to them as soon as you can, and make sure they get updates - even if it's just to say nothing new has happened. If you have bad news, don't sugar coat it. It can be hard to tell people upsetting things, but clients really appreciate honesty when dealing with their legal matters. Tell them the truth, even if the truth will be hard for them to hear.
Develop Proper Expectations From the Beginning
Among the best ways to have good client relations is to make sure both of you are on the same page from the start. Good communication helps with that, but you also need to set reasonable expectations of what you can offer the client. Talk to them about their case and what options they have. Find out if there are conflicts of interest, if they've worked with lawyers previously about their issue, and what goals they have for their case. Their motivations and what evidence or information they have about their case and the opposing party can really matter in whether you will be successful in helping them.
Listen to Your Gut Feeling When Deciding on Representation
Even if you feel you have the necessary skills for the case and the desire to work on it, you also need to make sure you have the technology you'll need. Additionally, listen to that little inner voice. Is it warning you? Does it worry about whether the client can pay you, or the realism of the claims they're making about their case? It's generally always good to listen to that voice.
If you do choose to work with the client, develop good relations but also protect yourself by putting everything in writing. Written contracts are necessary, and you'll need to set up a payment plan, too. Make it easy for the client to pay you properly, and make sure you correct any erroneous information quickly. That way you're protecting yourself and avoiding or reducing misunderstandings with your client. Document everything the client tells you. Make the bills easy to read and follow. Keep that paper trail going, and you'll reduce the risk of problems with client relations.
Bills and Fee Disputes Don't Have to Become Client Relations Nightmares
It's not realistic for a practicing lawyer to escape a fee dispute throughout their entire career, but there are ways to minimize the potential for these kinds of problems. Good clients will try to work something out, but you can do your part by not ignoring intake warning signs, not spending too much of the asset, and budgeting properly. Bad clients will always try to avoid paying no matter what you do, but being prepared can help with that. If you do get a difficult client make sure you never make threats or put anything in writing you wouldn't want others to see. Be the adult, always. It's not always easy, but it is important.
Disclose Conflicts, Avoid Dangerous Situations, and Handle Complaints Properly
If you have a conflict of interest, be sure to disclose it. Address the nature of it, the implications of it, and the possible adverse consequences. There may be representation advantages, but there may also be problems. Knowing when to avoid representing a client or when to terminate a contract with a client because of conflicts of interest is important for your personal and professional safety.
Additionally, you want to avoid dangerous situations that could put your career in jeopardy. The biggest issue you may face is not securing permission before representation. If you don't get everything signed and handled the right way first, you could find that you don't have the permission you think you do. You could also find that you aren't going to be paid for the work you did because the client will argue that you weren't really representing them. Make sure you clearly understand all of your responsibilities, and that the client knows all of their rights.
When handling complaints you may want to have someone respond for you, but you should always make that response a timely one. Understand the deadlines you have and the burdens that come with those deadlines, and read your state rules of disciplinary procedure to be clear on anything that has to be addressed. Avoid publicity if a client is attacking you or your honor. Simply handle the matter professionally, and that will help you keep better relations with current and future clients.
Lastly, Remember the Three Main Rules of Client Relations
- Treat clients like they're your next door neighbors
- Tell the truth always, as it reduces paperwork
- Never sue a client, unless you truly have no other choice.
You are your client are a team, and you want to be a good, communicative teammate. Stay professional, but remain sympathetic and open to your client's needs, feelings, thoughts, and opinions. With good client relations, you can build your career and strengthen your business significantly.