GPSOLO January/February 2008
Client Communication and Contact
Failure to communicate with clients in a timely and effective manner violates the ABA Rules of Professional Responsibility. Failure of communication is also frequently cited as the cause of attorney disciplinary matters. Before any such worst-case scenario occurs, new and experienced attorneys alike need to face the reality: Communication is key to the attorney-client relationship.
A happy client is often an oxymoron—clients generally don’t consult a lawyer for a pleasant reason. Clients are on the telephone or in our office because there is a problem. Emotions run high, tempers are short, and delays, whether actual or perceived, pepper the assumptions that can cloud a client’s thinking. Most matters are time sensitive.
Client satisfaction with the resolution of a legal problem is not always possible, but client satisfaction with our effort, attitude, and communication is attainable. Developing good personal habits and consistent office procedures, along with appropriate use of staff resources (if applicable), go a long way in ensuring client satisfaction and retention. Lawyers and staff can’t forget for a moment that the client is the bread and butter of our practice. Delivery of services is our business.
Communication is an essential component of delivery of legal services. No matter the practice setting, each and every attorney and attorney’s staff or support system owe a duty to each and every client to provide timely, pertinent information on each and every matter being handled.
The client’s problem is the client’s property. Solutions to the problem are not just attorney work product, but also a client’s entitlement. Regular communication minimizes the need for status requests from the client and contributes to the client’s overall confidence in advice or recommended solutions. Keeping a client informed will help keep client expectations reasonable. Timely communication is essential to client well-being.
How do you ensure good communication with clients? First and foremost, you must let clients know what to expect. From day one, inform all your new clients of what I call “telephone policy.” For example, if you release your cell phone numbers to clients, you can expect the cell phone numbers to be used, often after hours or on weekends. You then must take those calls. If, on the other hand, you restrict access to your cell phone, you must provide your staff with clear guidelines on how to gently limit a client’s accessibility to instant communication. It is my experience, as someone who restricts access to my cell phone, that clients understand limitations on telephone availability—if explained in advance.
If your office has defined operating hours or so-called “quiet times,” clients need to know that from the outset. If you accept or return calls at pre-set or certain times, clients should be aware of the schedule so that they have reasonable expectations.
You should also inform clients at the start of the relationship if your work hours deviate from customary business hours. A lawyer’s area of practice may help determine the best operating hours. For example, unless electronic filing is permitted by local rules, a litigator’s office may need to be open during the courts’ operating hours, whereas an intellectual property practice may operate on a more relaxed or variable schedule. The client, if an early riser, should know that his or her attorney doesn’t arrive at the office before mid-morning. The timing of conference calls needs to coincide with an attorney’s availability. If there has been a discussion of guidelines and appropriate time frames from the beginning of the relationship, demands are far more likely to coincide with the reality of an attorney’s schedule.
Frequently an attorney has multiple demands on his or her time. If an attorney is in court, the use of cell phones is severely curtailed and messages may back up. I am unavailable most Monday afternoons because of regular court appearances, and I make sure new clients know this to minimize both their frustration and my impatience after a long afternoon.
E-mail is an ever-growing means of communication in virtually every practice setting, and it has been my experience that clients expect rapid—if not immediate—responses to their e-mail messages. Instant communication may not be possible, however, and clients need to know your schedule so that their expectations are reasonable. It is frustrating to get that phone call, “Did you get my e-mail? Why haven’t you answered it?” if you have not had the opportunity all day to check for messages. Once again, prior knowledge about your “e-mail policy” may minimize client frustration. It’s yet another example of setting reasonable expectations concerning the means and timing of communication.
Many clients—especially business clients—expect that you will respond to an e-mail message with an e-mail of your own, and that you will be able to receive and send documents as attachments, rather than via facsimile. Make sure that your technological systems and staff support are up to the task of effective and timely communication that meets client expectations in your practice area. You also must have a system and means of communication in place for clients who, by choice or owing to economics, do not have access to e-mail (yes, there are still plenty of these clients out there). Establishing whether routine communication will be by letter or by telephone is a client decision, but communication must take place within the framework of office procedures.
If you have support staff, the staff also must be aware of its role. Messages can be relayed and information given, but the fine line of rendering legal advice cannot be crossed when communicating with a client. Even in a solo or small firm practice setting, it is useful to have a manual that spells out office procedure in writing. It serves as a reference tool and means of guidance for what can be said and how it should be said. Actual scripts are helpful. Sometimes repeat or knowledgeable clients unintentionally push staff beyond guidelines in an attempt to get information or to run a problem by someone. It is tempting for experienced staff members to try to help; having scripts in place can keep them from saying too much. Written scripts and prompts can be very helpful to new or inexperienced staff members, too. I also suggest that you monitor calls to ensure that support staff never crosses the line of un-authorized practice of law and that you have a comfort level with staff-client interactions.
When and how often to schedule personal conferences depends not only on the type of problem being handled, but also your schedule. Conference calls or detailed telephone calls tend to minimize the need to meet frequently. Often these are more efficient ways to communicate. Establish procedures for your staff so they know when to schedule appointments and how many can be scheduled in any given day. And what of the client who demands an immediate appointment because of an emergency? Well, there are emergencies, and then there are emergencies! Support staff can’t always distinguish between the two, but a helpful manner and receptive attitude on the other end of the phone may allow the client to vent or deal with momentary panic until you can return the call and weigh in on the need for an immediate appointment.
Some attorneys continue to practice law while on vacation, but electronic availability may be limited by geography, time zone differences, or technological capabilities. Again, if a client is forewarned about your availability during vacation, you can prevent or short-circuit many problems. As attorneys, we can’t reasonably expect clients to prioritize the urgency of a particular aspect of their case or their legal problem, but an acknowledgement of a message is reassuring during an attorney’s vacation. (For more on vacations, see jennifer j. rose’s article in the Spring 2007 issue of the Solo Newsletter, www.abanet.org/genpractice/solo/2007/vol13no3/survivingnuclearwinter.html.)
Upon return from vacation, you will be greeted by a backlog of work to sort through, documents or pleadings to be reviewed or answered, and the inevitable stack of messages. Planning in advance for the actual return to normal office routine is important. Will you come into the office a day before clients are told you will be available? Is there a script you can use to manage a logjam of calls? Has there been a system for taking detailed messages? How quickly can work be prioritized and then dealt with?
No matter what route an attorney takes or what form of communication best suits an attorney’s practice setting, style, and comfort level, a client needs to know how to reach his or her attorney and what to expect from the relationship when there is a question to be answered, an issue to be explained, or a deadline to be met. Uncertainty doesn’t add to the client’s comfort or confidence. It can be enough of an impediment to damage or even break down the attorney-client relationship. A client is frequently upset from the outset of the relationship. Understanding this psychology, setting realistic expectations of the frequency with which calls need to be made, having a patient and helpful support system and staff, and setting boundaries and time lines just make sense in this age of instant communication.
Good Personal Habits That Foster Effective Communication
- Clarify relevant and realistic client expectations.
- Set deadlines for work to be performed.
- Spell out how your law office operates.
- Introduce support staff during the initial meeting (if applicable).
- Return phone calls.
- Listen to voice mails at least once a day.
- Answer e-mails on a regular basis (if applicable).
Betty Adams is a partner with Adams & Adams in Ellicott City, Maryland, and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.