Part 1: The Client’s Perspective
There is a Facebook meme that says something like: If a man says he’ll do something, he’ll do it. No need to remind him every six months about it.
Too many lawyers have the same attitude. Upon learning that I am a lawyer, my uncle’s friend said, “Oh, lawyers. [Big sigh.] They will promise you the moon until they get your money, then you will never hear from them again.” Unfortunately, close family members and I have been in the shoes of Client for several matters this year and found it to be only too true.
Lucky me. Since the end of 2015, I’ve been up close and personal with the stress of interacting with the legal system and nonresponsive lawyers. Maybe it was time for me to be reminded of some of what others endure and what lawyers are really hired to do. In any case, let me just say that many lawyers have earned our low reputations.
I started this as a rant about poor client service of some particular lawyers. I was on the verge of calling the state bar and filing a complaint but decided to turn my frustration into something I hope will be useful to other lawyers. Let me know if you found value here.
From the Client’s chair, I’ve learned and relearned some lessons. I know that being a lawyer is hard, but so is being a client, and there are ways of serving clients that also serve lawyers.
I’ve become clear that a lawyer’s job is not just to file papers or show up in court. Lawyer, you probably have many clients, but most clients have only one case. Clients come to you because something in their lives has spun out of control and they need help. They need a guide to the system, someone to represent their interests and get their lives back on track. Your job is not just to file a few papers in court – there are lots of self-help options for that. It is to bring your experience and expertise to the chaos and to have your client’s back. You’re there to reassure them that they’re not alone, that you will take care of moving the case forward. You are hired to reduce the client’s anxiety, not to add to it!
Clients hire lawyers to advocate for them in matters that can affect the most important aspects of their lives. The matters are of grave importance – that is why they are willing to write big checks and max out their credit cards.
The legal system is mysterious and complex. They’ve heard scary stories about what happens in court: innocent people convicted; witnesses who lie; and huge judgments that seem unjust. Their “friends” are more than happy to tell them the latest horror story.
After the first meeting, clients usually leave the appointment feeling supported and hopeful. The lawyer hears the story and says, Oh yes, I can help with this. It shouldn’t take too long, it looks pretty cut and dry. The road ahead might have its bumps, but the client feels good about having the support of someone who can navigate the system.
In my recent experience, the relief is shortlived. When, as my uncle’s friend predicted, the lawyer, having been paid, disappears and doesn’t call back, the Client feels abandoned. Their guide has left them. Unsuccessful attempts to contact the lawyer just increase the anxiety. The longer the case goes on, the more anxious and frightened they become. The other party gets anxious, too. Emotions escalate. There may be emotional outbursts between the parties.
The lawyer may forget the client as soon as she walks out of the door. The anxiety of conflict and the uncertainty of what will happen will still permeate the clients’ lives. They can’t concentrate at work. They wake up in the middle of the night, wracked with worry and unanswered questions. They live with it every day, not just the days they call your office.
Plaintiff in a Paternity case: When will I see my newborn son? I missed the birth. Will I miss all his firsts? The mother says we’ve broken up so I should just go away. He’s my son, I can’t abandon him. You said the law is on my side, but she keeps making threats. If I’m 5 minutes late getting him back to her, will my son’s mother really have me arrested for kidnapping because I’m not on the birth certificate? Does it matter that we have a DNA test that shows I am the father? What about the fits she is having in front of our son, the screaming scenes in the Publix parking lot? Now her family is threatening to have me arrested and saying that they will sell everything they have to pay lawyers to keep me from seeing my son. Can they do that? I’m not a drug addict and I’ve never been violent. I’m just a regular guy, a responsible father, who wants to be there for my son. I don’t know if a cop will show up to arrest me at any moment because she’s trumped up some story. What if they come to my job? Her brother and parents tear me down at every chance. How long will I need to put up with this emotional abuse before I can get before a judge or get to mediation? It has already been six months, what if this drags out for years? Why can’t my lawyer even remember that my child is a boy? Why does she refer to my daughter in emails?!!!
Widow in a Probate case: My husband and I paid a lawyer thousands to dollars for trust documents so I wouldn’t have to go to probate. A piece of property was left out of the trust and the lawyer said it was my fault, even though I gave him all the information. Now I have to file a request for probate. I paid another lawyer a lot of money and she said it would only take a few weeks. It has been six months and it drags on. Will this snafu mean we don’t get to close on the property? Will I have to give their money back? The buyers are neighbors. They’re looking at me like I’ve done something wrong. I gave my word and now I feel so powerless and uncertain.
Because they’ve hired a lawyer, the clients hands are now tied. They can’t go directly to the court. The intermediary isn’t calling back, is out of town, can’t reach the other lawyer…the anxiety rises beyond where it was when the client hired the lawyer in the first place.
Six months later, the lawyer hasn’t moved the case forward. (I wish I didn’t have to say that this actually happened in ALL the cases I’ve been involved in!) In addition to being frightened and anxious, everyone is frazzled. Tempers flare easily. The emotional toll is high and a lot of money has been spent with no results to show. At this point, it was my client experience that the lawyers dropped more out of communication. My calls reminded them of the work they hadn’t done. Instead of doing the work, they resented my calls. I became the enemy.
Many lawyers who get calls from unhappy clients do begin to avoid the clients and screen calls. Instead of being accountable, apologizing, making amends, and doing better, the lawyer gets defensive and even rude. When, after almost six months, I called the lawyer about the simple summary administration which was supposed to take a few weeks, she was obviously irritated. She’d actually forgotten that a real estate closing was on hold, even though my mother lost sleep over it every night. She basically told me to look at the court’s on-line records to find out if the matter was resolved, and that I should just leave her alone or she’d start sending more bills.
When your client calls you about their case and you behave like that, you add to their anxiety, exponentially. True, your office may be in chaos. You’re not doing your job of helping them if you’re resentful that they’ve intruded into your chaos. Your chaos is not their problem, until you make it so.
That resentful attitude breaks whatever trust and hope may have still existed. It is a beginning of an adversarial relationship between your client and you, the lawyer they’re depending on. This is commonly where clients call the bar disciplinary office or resolve they will never pay you another dime. [For some of us, it is the point where we write articles with advice of how to actually treat clients.]
Part 2: The Lawyer’s Perspective
Folks know me as the Peacemaker, Healer, and Problem-Solver in law. For the last several years, I have been know for my two ABA books and my work in coaching and training lawyers to redesign their law practices to focus on their values and principles. Since 2008, my law practice has been sporadic and very part-time, but before that, I was a solo practitioner lawyer. I ran law practices that actually supported a full staff and my family. As a client, I want to be able to count on my lawyer. As a lawyer, I want to provide the best possible service to my client.
The majority of my caseload consisted of family law matters. Such cases are often the most emotional and anxiety-inducing. Like other lawyers, as a young lawyer, I often arrived at the office to find a dozen messages, each with an emergency that needed attention right NOW, if not yesterday. The To-Do list from the previous day still lay on the desk, screaming at me, and I woke up at night, suddenly remembering some forgotten task. Clients found my home number and cell and called me at odd hours with emergencies that didn’t seem life and death to me. Sometimes they did have life and death emergencies. I was involved in a lot of domestic violence cases where the danger was real.
Studies show that lawyers have high rates of depression, addiction, and suicide. I can’t help but think that part of the cause is the constant barrage of client emergencies. Being immersed in all that conflict can’t be healthy and adding conflict with our own clients, fearing they’ll report us to the bar or refuse to pay our bills, adds to the stress.
Unlike many lawyers, I didn’t just numb myself to the chaos and I didn’t ignore my clients’ anxiety or pain. I didn’t surrender to the resentment and attack my clients for needing me.
Instead of accepting my lot in life was as a crisis manager, I took action to resolve the chaos and to give myself some peace of mind. I created systems and sometimes made hard decisions that made things more workable in the long run. I now help my coaching clients get control of their offices in similar ways.
The following advice is mostly for solo practitioners. That is where I have experience. I imagine that big firms have staff members and systems that are designed to manage the daily disorder. No sooner had I written that, a friend of mine just told me the story of how an associate at a law firm neglected her case for several months. She contacted the partner and the associate was fired. A hard lesson, but I hope the associate learned a different way to treat clients.
I do believe that the majority of lawyers began practice, hoping to help people. They’re unprepared for the barrage and not trained in business management. I hope the following will help some lawyers avoid that and gain some peace.
- Get some help. It may seem self-serving to say that, since I am a coach, but you don’t have to hire me and the help you need may not be coaching. Just get someone who can help you establish office systems that match your work style and are focused on serving your clients. The staff member can help you with healthy boundaries, making lists, and a myriad of other tasks. If you already have staff, someone may be chomping at the bit to help you with this, watching as you flail and struggle, or you may have to hire someone on a permanent or temporary basis. One of the best employees I ever had was a newly divorced housewife entering the workforce. She was worth her weight in gold. I was embarrassed by how little she asked to be paid for part-time work. In addition to getting everything smartly organized, she baked cookies for my office meetings. [I loved her so much that she got the courage to look for a better job and soon found one, with my glowing recommendation.]
- Prepare to address the emotional issues, not just the legal ones. Once I had my systems in place, the chaos subsided and I had a lot more peace. Clients who are taken care of are less demanding. Still, at one point, I had two office staff members who were trained in counseling and were able to provide valuable emotional support. Because of our systems which included regular case review meetings, they were up to date with the clients challenges and could address them. At another point, I gave my clients a break on flat rates if they also hired a counselor to see them through the emotional issues. Clients calmed down and so did the chaos.
- Create alignment with your office staff. Solos often have small staffs, if any. There may be one person who does everything you don’t do. Treat that person well. Make sure they get proper training in customer service and that your systems keep them informed and they can keep you informed. When I called the lawyers’ offices and talked to staff members who had no idea what was going on, I was even more frustrated! Pay your key staff as much as you can afford and create a collaborative partnership. Of course, I don’t mean the legal partnership. I mean the real, roll your sleeves up and work together kind of we-are-in-this-together partnership where you have each others’ backs. Choose this person wisely. The last thing you need is someone with poor client relations skills or incompetence in getting the work done. Your staff can make you shine or can make your life miserable.
- Don’t accept new clients when you don’t have resources to serve them. Lawyers tend to over-extend. They accept new clients when they are already overwhelmed. They take high maintenance clients when they don’t have systems to serve them. You are not doing yourself a favor to take every case that walks in the door.
- Set criteria for the kinds and numbers of clients you will accept. It can be hard to turn away a potential client, especially after you’ve met. Get better at screening over the phone and create a system for screening at intake. One of my coaching clients set up an introductory consultation. She told the potential client that she wanted them to meet for them both to consider whether she was the lawyer who was most able to provide the best service. It was a mutual interview. She and the client both had 24 hours to decide. If the client called back, she either accepted the case or referred them to another lawyer.
She and some of my other coaching clients have created point systems. Points can be awarded based on the lawyer’s values. For example: up to 10 points may be awarded for ability to pay the lawyer’s full fee. 5 points may be awarded for interesting legal issues, for likeable clients, for cases that pull the heartstrings, for clients who desperately need representation or the lawyers’ special skills, for family members of existing clients, etc.
Beyond the client characteristics, points can include office issues, including how busy you are and how long the case will take. There may be a very interesting case and a likeable client with an opposing counsel that will take all your time from other clients. That consideration goes into the point total, too. To be accepted, the case must meet a minimum point total. The busier you are, the higher the point threshold. If you can only accept one new client this week, wouldn’t you want it to be a top-notch one?
- Communicate reasonable expectations and don’t make promises you can’t keep, just to get business in the door. When I make a time-sensitive promise, I make an appointment on my calendar to do the work. If I don’t have time, I adjust my agreements to reflect reality. Many lawyers fear clients will leave if they don’t make unreasonable promises. If you can’t do the work, they’re going to just leave, they’ll leave mad. They’ll tell their friends about it, too.
- Stay in communication. Initiate communication, don’t just respond. I had a schedule for getting in touch with clients. Not only did I want to tell them what was happening from my end, I wanted to hear if anything had changed on theirs. When a trial or an important meeting was coming up, I would call in advance to set up planning and prep meetings. My clients didn’t chase me, begging for information. They knew I was on top of things.
- Prepare for emergencies. Truth is, sometimes you will get sick. Or you will break your foot. Or get snowed in from a vacation trip. If you are lucky and plan accordingly, you will go on vacation to some exotic spot. I recall my malpractice carrier required that I have an emergency plan and that I explain it to them before they’d write my policy. Even if you don’t have that requirement, you should still plan. If you’re on top of your cases, a short absence isn’t going to be disasterous. Still, clients can need help while you are away. Is there another solo who can cover for you, in exchange for your doing the same? When an absence is planned, should you take the week before off to do some preventive planning with your existing clients? The surest way for it to hit the fan is to leave without proper planning and coverage.
- Tame Your To-Do list. That may mean you create a to-do list (instead of just putting out fires) or that you just need to get real with the one you have. You might go a little crazy at the idea, but I recommend that you literally stop all other work until you get caught up on your old to-do list. You may think you need to keep taking business or you’ll starve – many lawyers have this fear – but what is more likely is that you’ll develop a strong practice and good reputation. Some lawyers have waiting lists and people postpone their legal actions until they can get the lawyer who has a high reputation for customer service.
In my office, I had a client to-do list on my desk. It was paper, not electronic. Somehow that made it more real to me. Imagine something like this in a spreadsheet:
Name of Client Type of Case Next Task Due Date Last Contact Next Contact
Every client had a space on the list. I could adjust the font to get it on one page, so I could take it all in. Sometimes I had more than one Next Task. Urgent actions and imminent deadlines got bright reds and were sorted to the top of the list. If we were waiting for a responsive pleading, the Next Task showed the date it was due. If we were due to respond, I scheduled the time on my calendar and made an appointment with the client to come in to sign. I scheduled check-in calls and appointments with clients, just to give them updates on their cases.
My staff had a Case Management meeting each week and we planned our work based on what needed to be done. When a client called, we always had something to tell them.
Of course, there are a lot of non-client to-do items, too. Put those on your list under the appropriate topic: Family Commitments, Office Tasks, Marketing, etc. Sometimes just having a list, rather than fretting and trying to remember.
I no longer have a caseload, but I still use a similar spreadsheet to manage my tasks and most people think I am one of the most productive people they know.
- Apologize when you make a mistake. Even when you are diligent in caring for your clients, sometimes mistakes happen. There is a lot of research that shows that a heartfelt apology tends to neutralize anger. I’ve written about that. It is better to make an apology in person, but you might start with a letter to organize your thoughts. An effective apology has several parts. There is an on-line exercise to help you apologize here: http://www.apologyletter.org/index2.html.
For me, this was Law Office Management 101. It became common sense: create the systems that take care of your clients and your clients will take care of you. My experience this year has shown me just how uncommon good client service is.