A few weeks ago there was an interesting discussion on the Solo Section listserv “Client Dissatisfied: Advice?” which asked the question “I have a client who is dissatisfied with my services thus far in the case. Any suggestions on smoothing things over?”
I found the question and subsequent responses interesting for a few reasons. One is because the “dissatisfaction” was not a result of the technology that makes us work 24-7 and always feeling overwhelmed but rather some fundamental communication problems which have always been at the core of many client satisfaction problems. Based upon many of the answers, all of which were excellent, it seems as though most members learn by making mistakes and are willing to help other members not make the same mistakes.
If you are new to practice, it is important to establish realistic rules/procedures to deal with new and existing clients and if you have been in practice, you want to review your current procedures to make certain they continue to be effective. Most of these rules/procedure should be for the new client because this is where most problems with communication and expectations begin.
Law is based on relationships and most people come to lawyers because they are in some type of distress. That is why it is critically important to establish realistic standards so that clients know what you are promising to deliver and their expectations can be met. In addition to creating these new standards or rules, I think it is critical to share them with your clients from the start of the engagement. You should also share this information with your staff.
STEP 1 TO AVOID CLIENT PROBLEMS
As ridiculous as it may sound especially to new practitioners or for those whose client base may be shrinking, the best way to avoid most client problems to choose clients more carefully. Despite what you may think, it is okay to say "No" to a potential client.
Some clients should be avoided and everyone in your office needs to know what type of clients to avoid. If you have associates or partners or even staff who bring in clients, it is important to discuss the types of clients that should be avoided. If you are a solo, then you alone should have the final say about who is and who is not accepted as a client of the firm. If you have partner(s) you should have some criteria for clients and there should be an approval process for clients.
You should have a checklist of characteristics that list your ideal client and characteristics of clients that should be avoided. When evaluating whether to take a client, go through the list to help you make the decision.
In the book, How to Build a Personal Injury Practice, ABA, 1997, K. William Gibson lists some types of clients that should be avoided:
- Late comers - Clients who show up right before the deadline. Don’t be a hero.
- Revenge Seekers - Beware of clients who are looking for a pound of flesh. They may not be happy until they have some of yours.
- Cash Cows - Do not trust a relationship if a potential client promises you future lucrative business.
- Shoppers - These clients can probably never be pleased. Their last attorneys could not please them so there is no reason to think you will.
- Commanders - There can only be one attorney directing the case - YOU
- Dreamers - These are clients who have unrealistic expectations about the value or outcome of their case. It is your job to explain what the law can and cannot do. If they still have unrealistic expectations, this is not your client.
- Bargain hunters - Be wary of clients who dicker over all fees and charges.
- Poison Apples - Unless your client can get along with all your staff, you may not want to spend a lot of time working with this person.
- No Shows - If a client misses the first meeting, do not consider a second meeting. This person will not value your time.
If you choose to not accept a client, then you should send a non-engagement letter and keep copies of these letters in a separate file on your computer in a file called "non-engagement". If you are uncomfortable with the client or if there are statute of limitations concerns, you should send the letter "return receipt requested."
STEP 2 TO AVOID CLIENT PROBLEMS
When deciding whether or not to take a client or when you already have a client, one of the most important techniques in preventing client problems – LISTEN to your client/potential client.
Very often lawyers talk too much, thinking they know what the clients want and what should be done. If you are an experienced practitioner, you do know what to expect and what the client needs but by not listening, you miss what the clients need, think they want and, most importantly what they expect. If you miss these client expectations, you will often discover too late that their expectations are not realistic and do not meet yours.
You should actually ask the client, “What do you expect from this engagement?” “How will you measure success or satisfaction?” Knowing this will help you clearly explain what is realistic and what is not realistic.
STEP 3: UNDERPROMISE AND OVER DELIVER
As in the case of the discussion on the listserv, it may be that the attorney was too optimistic in his/her explanation to the client. Clients hear only the good parts of what you say. Do not promise any results. Explain all the scenarios stressing that nothing is guaranteed. It may even be better to create very low expectations. If it turns out that the results are not as good as you had hoped, your client is not disappointed. If, on the other hand, the results are much better than explained, you will be a hero. Same legal result, different client reaction.
STEP 4: EXPLAIN THE LEGAL PROCESS – WARTS AND ALL
Most of what the public knows about the legal profession comes from television and the media. Most of this information will be quite unrealistic. It is your responsibility to describe in detail how the legal process works. Clients need to understand that it is not like on television. It can be a slow and tedious process. Do not skip this step. You might also want to have a brochure to explain the process. The MSBA actually has brochures which you can give to your clients. A list is on the MSBA website http://www.msba.org/departments/commpubl/publications/brochures. If you do not want to get the brochures, you can create your own description of the process and give the link to these to your clients. Two which might be helpful for new clients could be When You Need A Lawyer
Be honest and realistic. You understand the system but your clients do not.
STEP 5: KEEP CLIENT INFORMED
It is important to keep the client consistently informed with all case information both positive and negative. Do not assume that the information is not important and too trivial. While the information may be completely ordinary to you, your client does not understand the process. Let the client decide what is and what is not important. Having complete information can help avoid problems or if problems do arise, you can catch them sooner. You should never have the client say “I did not know.”
Ask the clients how they and where they want information sent. Have them tell you how to best communicate with them. For confidential information you should never send information electronically even if the client requests it.
STEP 6: DO NOT IGNORE AN UNHAPPY CLIENT
If a client starts to complain or you see a problem in the making, contact the client and determine what the problem is and how to resolve it. That may even mean ending the relationship which of course is depending upon the type of case.
As long as there are clients with issues, there will be some unhappy ones. Your goal is to minimize these problems. Following these tips will not eliminate all problems but they won’t make the situation any worse.
Additional Resources –
How to Manage Clients’ Expectations in a 24-7 World.http://www.msba.org/departments/loma/articles/officemngmt/tamingthebeast.asp
Rules for Managing Your Clients’ Expectations