Note: See also Law Office Management Professional Standard #2: Client Service
Buyer’s remorse is not limited to the purchases of consumer electronics and automobiles. Many clients also experience second-thoughts about the lawyer they just hired. To reassure your new clients that they have made the right choice, immediately show a little extra client care: Send each new client a brief thank you letter with a “gift.” The “gift” could be a recent copy of your firm newsletter, a recent topical article you authored, a business card that lists an unpublished telephone number for the client to reach you in an emergency, or a book related to their legal issue that shows you care about them as a client. (You get the idea.) Then follow-up with a personal telephone call several days later to let your client know you have begun work on the matter. This immediate special attention helps to retain clients and build positive long-term relationships.
Successful practitioners provide excellent client service by exceeding, not just meeting, client expectations. To do so, they manage expectations from the outset, and take the time to explain the legal process, the range of possible outcomes, communication policies and the billing process with their client. They pay attention to detail, and they effectively screen clients whose expectations they feel they cannot be met. It is very important to determine your client’s degree of sophistication – it is not enough to say that client didn’t ask.
Expect high standards from all your staff. Successful firms also devote the time and resources necessary to properly train and manage support staff. With the significant reliance placed on support staff, successful firms recognize that it is critical that they receive ongoing training in firm systems and are properly supervised. Never discuss a client matter in public. Respect the confidentiality of information and ensure the same from you staff through signed confidentiality agreements. Close your door when on the phone.
Time management is a very important aspect of proper client service. Don’t to keep clients waiting for their office appointment, and look at your calendar before you make a time- related promise to your client. Return calls and emails in a timely fashion.
Building Client Relationships
At the commencement of your retainer provide your client with a file or binder and suggestions on how to organize it. Advise your client that you will be copying them with everything you generate or receive, and that this is where this documentation should be kept. This will enable your client to see, at a glance, the progress in the case, and will likely reduce the number of calls you receive to send out duplicate copies of documentation the client has lost or misplaced.
Keep your client informed of the progress in her case, and only take action with the express consent of your client. Have letters and pleadings approved, in writing, by your client before they are filed or forwarded to others. Keep this approval on file.
Know who your client is. Is it the parent or the adult child? If it is the parent, take your instructions only from the parent, not the child on behalf of the parent.
Do not make decisions on a case without your client’s consent and without explaining to your client the alternatives available and the possible consequences of the alternatives. Satisfy yourself that your client understands what you’ve told her and give her time to think before making her decision.
When preparing for a settlement conference, prepare the client well in advance. Discuss the format of the conference, as well as the various scenarios that you anticipate, so that the client is not overwhelmed by the process. Explain the binding nature of an agreement made at a settlement conference. If your client is one who wants to discuss proposals with a family member or advisor, make sure this person is available (by phone or in person) when the settlement conference is conducted.
Do not make a decision for a client. Give her the alternatives but make it clear in your discussions with her that the decision is hers to make.
Always remember the importance of good client relations in minimizing your claims risk. Communicate in your actions that your client is important to you. Be on time for your appointments. Do not allow interruptions when you are meeting with a client. Respond promptly to client inquiries. Be prepared. Be courteous to both your client as well as to those you deal with on your client’s behalf. Be sure that your staff does the same. A client who likes you is much less likely to file an errors or omissions claim against you.
Improving client communication
In claim files, we often see allegations arising from ineffective communication. Here are five tips to assist in establishing and improving the lines of communication with your clients:
- Discuss your technology: Clients are more tech savvy nowadays and understand how easily digital information can be compromised. It’s a good idea to discuss with them the technology you use and the safeguards you have in place to protect their data. In fact, outline it in the retainer agreement.
- File retention: Make sure you include your file retention policy in the retainer agreement. This way, your client understands what will happen to their file and sign off on it. Rather than provide them with a paper copy, consider providing the digital copy on a thumb drive.
- Consider establishing a protocol to contact your clients at regular intervals, rather than just when you need something or there’s been an update on their file. Regular contact assures the client that their matter has not fallen by the wayside.
- Introduce your team: Rarely are you the only one who touches a file. Introduce your client to those who may be in contact with them, so they don’t feel as though they have been shuffled over to a less experienced associate or staff person.
- Ask for a referral or recommendation once the retainer is complete. To assist your clients with a recommendation, consider giving them a template to work from or a helpful recommendation you have already received.
These tips will help improve communication and build the relationship with your clients, so they trust what you have to say.
Watching for “orphan” files
There are files where no specific lawyer has been assigned to them, or they are without a definite or fixed deadline. To avoid these files from being neglected, here are some methods that may be used:
- Periodically review your time records for open files that have had no activity for a period of, for example, six months or more;
- Periodically look in all the filing cabinets for files that have not been properly diarized (most firms will write in the inside file folder a date for which the file is diarized);
- Keep a maximum of 10 files in your office that you are currently working on, and diarize the rest. The files that are sitting on your windowsill or on the corner of your desk run the highest risk of a missed deadline!
- Delegate someone in your office to periodically go into each private office to ensure that no files are collecting dust.
It’s wise to have a backup system to detect when files have gone for too long without any activity, in order to avoid any missed limitations or important deadlines that may result in a claim against you.
Avoiding Fee Disputes
Suing for unpaid legal fees can sometimes result in a countersuit for legal malpractice. Sometimes all it takes is mailing out that final bill to trigger a claim. In order to avoid fee disputes, consider doing the following:
- Don’t accept clients who cannot afford your legal services. If your client is overly concerned with cost and will ultimately not be able to afford the bill, you may be torn between putting in the required number of hours and minimizing cost. Learn to say “no” to these clients;
- Use a written fee agreement that clearly explains your fee structure. In addition, be sure to include the costs for disbursements such photocopying, computer research and court costs;
- Unless your client has specifically requested another arrangement, bill on a monthly basis. This avoids large, unexpected bills. If there is a zero balance that month, let the client know with a note indicating that you are continuing to work on the file;
- Use detailed billing statements and daily time entries so that the client knows exactly what they are paying for.
- Simply writing “research” for a 10 hour time entry is not sufficient – let the client know what you were researching;
- Take prompt action on accounts in arrears. Review all past due accounts on a monthly basis and make sure your retainer agreements outline what actions will be taken should the client fall behind in paying their bill.
Consider working out a realistic payment schedule with your client, or consider resolving the dispute through ADR such as mediation as an alternative to suing for your fees.