By Regina A. DeMeo, Esq.
Editor’s Note: The author wrote this article in conjunction with her interview on the same topic in the Opening Your Own Law Firm video series, which is available to MSBA Members.
Managing client relationships is essential to a successful and fulfilling legal career. Unfortunately most law schools or firms never formally develop this skill with young lawyers. Key to managing client relationships is setting appropriate boundaries upfront. Doing that will benefit both your client and you — it helps ensure your client is satisfied with your services, and it minimizes the internal conflict you may feel between managing multiple cases while trying to enjoy your personal time.
Setting boundaries can be difficult at first, especially if you are wired to be a people-pleaser, but it is worth working on — over time, as I have done, you will appreciate how it minimizes stress, reduces conflict, and allows for a healthier work-life balance.
Here are five key tips for setting appropriate boundaries with your client.
1. Set an initial contact policy with built-in boundaries. Since first impressions matter, your initial contact with a client is a golden opportunity to set the appropriate tone for your relationship. Be prepared and set a policy for how consults will be scheduled, when you want to be available for new clients, and whether you will charge for your time. A well-structured beginning to the relationship sets a professional tone for all that follows.
Pro tip: Once you establish an initial contact policy, stick to it, especially with a client who tries to convince you to change your policy — this is never a good sign.
2. Put boundaries in the engagement contract. Your engagement contract should not only specify your hourly rate and initial retainer amount, but also your availability (i.e. normal hours of operation, and whether you accept calls/emails on weekends or while on vacation). It should clearly state the billing cycles and your expectation for prompt payment, including a reservation to withdraw if your client does not fulfill his/her responsibilities under the contract.
3. Set credit limits and stick to them. Each practice needs to decide the limits for extending credit to a client. For the limits to be effective, you must be willing to withdraw representation if your client reaches the limit and fails to make any effort to pay for the services rendered. In that circumstance, remind your client (and yourself) that there are plenty of lending options and that you did not go to law school to be in the lending industry. This will eliminate tension between the attorney and client, who deserves your best service for the agreed to compensation.
4. Check your client’s emotions if necessary. Clients are often in crisis, but that does not justify allowing a client to become abusive towards you. If your client starts yelling at you or becomes belligerent, you should immediately end the call and ask the client to call back when they are calmer. If you sense that your client is struggling emotionally, you can recommend that they engage a mental health professional. If you routinely find your client’s demands unreasonable, you may want to suggest that they change counsel.
5. Make sure you and your client are aligned in approach. To truly be an effective advocate, you and your client need to be aligned in your strategy, objectives, and positions to be argued. If you are not in sync on these three critical points, and you believe that ultimately your reputation or ethics are at risk, you should really consider withdrawing unless you can reset your client’s expectations. (continues below)
It definitely takes time to learn to set appropriate expectations about your availability, inform the client of the realistic costs for your services, educate him or her on the legal process, and stay true to your own standards of conduct. But for your own well-being it is well worth it to develop these skills as early as possible in your career. Enjoying the benefit of your particular expertise is a privilege, and your client needs to appreciate that he or she shares the responsibility for maintaining a healthy working relationship. You will not miss those that do not see this as a joint venture, and those that do will be your best referral sources for years to come.
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Since 1998, Regina A. DeMeo has helped families in transition address their legal issues related to custody, child support, alimony, and property division either through negotiated settlements or litigation. The past 16 years, she has been offering alternate dispute resolution services, including weekend mediation and Collaborative Divorce.