General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Division The Compleat Lawyer
Winter 1998 © American Bar Association. All rights reserved.
The Business of Law
BY EDWARD POLL
Edward Poll is a law practice management consultant. He is the author of Attorney & Law Firm Guide to The Business of Law: Planning & Operating for Survival & Growth (ABA General Practice Section, 1994) and the creator of Law Practice Management Review: The Audio Magazine for Busy Attorneys. If you have comments about this column, call 800/837-5880, fax 310/578-1769, or send e-mail to EdPoll@LawBiz.com.
Communicate with Status Reports
Failure to communicate is the most common cause of clients' complaints about lawyers. I continue to harp on this obvious—and what should be easily correctable—problem, yet according to current lawyer complaint studies, failing to respond to telephone calls, faxes, and letters is still the major lawyer discipline challenge.
The lesson should be obvious: Lawyers must communicate regularly with their clients. One way is by sending the client copies of all documents received by and sent from the law office. This is called "papering the client," and it's a good general remedy. But here's a new twist on keeping your clients informed that I learned from Wes Hackett, a lawyer in East Lansing, Michigan. He sends his clients monthly "status reports."
A status report is a one-page form that indicates the current status of the case or matter. It can have boxes to be checked and lines or blank spaces for brief hand-written or typed comments. One such form supplied by Wes Hackett is broken into four sections. The first covers the type of case or matter being handled and the general progress to date. This section is further subdivided into three areas: "Office," "General Litigation," and "Estate" matters, which correspond to the basic elements of Wes' practice. A family law practitioner, to pick another example, might have "Office," "Marital Dissolution," "Custody," and "Miscellaneous."
A status report will obviously reflect the particular needs of your practice. Within each area of primary involvement, Wes indicates the stage of progress next to an empty check box. Under the "General Litigation" area he lists "case evaluation," "research and investigation," "pleading," "discovery," and so forth. If he is in the discovery phase, he simply checks the corresponding box.
The second major section on the form is the "Current Matter Status." Wes leaves lines for insertion of items he is waiting for, and he has two columns next to each line for a check mark to indicate whose responsibility it is (the client or a third party) to provide those items. Also, there is a box where he can fill in what his next efforts on behalf of the client will be.
The third section ("Account Status") indicates whether the account is current or behind schedule, with a request for additional funds for the client's trust account if needed.
Finally, a blank box titled "Other Notes" is provided for miscellaneous comments to the client.
Since this report is only one page long, it can be easily reproduced by several methods. A master can be created and then photocopied. A template can be made in your word processing program and then laser-printed as needed. Or you could reproduce it at an instant printer as a personalized business form with multiple copies in different colors.
Status reports can take as little as two minutes to fill out and send off. Doing this on a regular basis (I suggest monthly) lets you communicate directly with the client in an efficient yet meaningful way. It's also a great marketing tool because it keeps your name, which will appear prominently on the form, in front of the client.
A lawyer named Bill came up to me recently after a speaking engagement and related how he could have avoided losing a good piece of business if he had used this technique six months earlier. This lawyer has a last name that is hard to pronounce, even more difficult to spell, and virtually impossible to remember. So everyone just calls him "Uncle Bill." He also coaches Little League baseball, and it turns out that one of the assistant coaches is a client whose matters he has been handling for a number of years.
One day, this client's father had a serious accident involving the railroad, and the father's leg was amputated as a result. When the client heard about the accident, he tried to reach "Uncle Bill," but didn't know how. He couldn't remember his lawyer's last name, and he wasn't near his office where he kept his legal paperwork which would have quickly divulged the firm's phone number. He called other friends but they also only knew the lawyer as "Uncle Bill."
Within the several hours it took the client to finally locate Bill's information, the father had already retained another lawyer. The settlement on this personal injury case was more than three million dollars, and "Uncle Bill" has been kicking himself ever since for not having had a method of regular communication in place so that his last name or phone number would have been well in mind to serve this client's emergency.
The status report does exactly that. Each month, it is a reminder for the client of who you are, that you've looked at his or her file and thought about the case or matter, and that you are doing what needs to be done to reach the client's objectives. The client rests more easily knowing that you are on top of things. From the perspective of client relations or marketing, this is a terrific strategy, but the status report is even more important for the prevention of malpractice. Why?
Let's say, as an example, that you need to prepare a list of heirs for an estate plan. You get busy with something else, and the work just doesn't get done. Thirty days pass, and you put it on your list of things to do again. Then 60 days, 90 days, or more pass and the work's still not done. Obviously, this may become a major problem, even cause for a malpractice claim. But if you handle the file every month, as you would with a status report procedure in place, you will more likely remember to do the task before any negligence arises.
Years ago, when I was a young associate in a small firm, the lawyers used to gather around a table once each month to discuss every client and every case or matter. During those meetings, each person would recite the work he or she had done during the last 30 days. From this process, we developed our billing statements.
While this may seem inefficient by today's standards, I learned a lot about the other lawyers' work and even more about each client and their current status (both as to their legal needs and their current payment status). We also reminded each other about tasks that should have been done but were not. This turned out to be one of the most important learning experiences for me as an associate, and later partner, in that firm.
Today, the status report serves a similar purpose, both for firms and for sole practi-tioners. Besides marketing (an external function), this tool helps eliminate potential claims for malpractice resulting from omissions (an internal function).