FRONTLINES

Simple Steps

Providing Road Maps for Your Clients

As lawyers, we get so familiar with the areas of law in which we concentrate that we can forget the matters we’re handling are often uncharted and scary territory for our clients. But it needn’t be that way—if you prepare an outline of the terrain.

Every summer during my grade school years, my parents and I would pile too many suitcases on top of our Volkswagen Beetle, grab the Kodak Brownie and head for Mexico. This was in the early ’60s, before interstate highways replaced the spider web of local roads that crisscrossed the U.S. and GPS rendered Scotch tape-patched, accordion-folded road maps nearly obsolete. We didn’t always know exactly where we were headed, but we always knew what was ahead because we had that era’s secret weapon for travelers to Mexico: a Sanborn Guide.

The Sanborn Guides were painstakingly detailed, mimeographed booklets that provided travelers with a narrative of how to get from here to there. They carefully described the roads, which sometimes weren’t numbered, and included details such as how many miles to the next turn, the nearest gas station, and when to watch for potholes in certain locales. We never felt afraid, even in a foreign land where we didn’t speak the language, because we had the Sanborn Guide. Your clients, too, could use a handy narrative to guide them through their legal matters.

Be it a divorce or personal injury case, business litigation, or a matter before an appellate court or regulatory board, the terrain of a legal matter is like second nature to seasoned attorneys. We know where the courthouse is, have a pretty good idea what’s going to happen when we get there, and don’t usually think twice about the process. But our clients are usually not familiar with how their particular type of matter will progress—which can make them anxious, emotional and sometimes difficult to work with. And remember, a fearful client is much more likely to be an unhappy client.

That’s why at the beginning of every case you should do a few things to give clients a road map of what’s ahead. They’ll feel more secure, and it will make your job a lot easier, too.

  • Develop a written chronology and FAQ sheet for each type of matter you handle. Include information about how long the process can take and what will be required of the client to successfully complete each step. Have these sheets ready when new clients come in the door.
  • Prepare information for clients on your office procedures, including what to expect in dealing with you. Include information such as what is (and is not) an emergency, who within your office they should transmit information and questions to, and what your policy is on returning phone calls or e-mails, particularly when you’re engaged in the trial of another matter. Introduce clients to every member of your team, and make sure they understand each team member’s function.
  • Continue to guide your clients through the various phases by meeting with them at set points throughout the representation to discuss where you are, how you got there and where you’re headed next.
If you incorporate these types of things into your engagement agreement, you will provide tangible value at the first meeting while shaping client expectations about the procedures your office uses to facilitate lawyer-client communications and handle emergencies, as well as what you expect in terms of billing and payment. Not only will these steps help to create a sense of security for the client and convey some real value received for the fee paid, but they’ll also help prevent unnecessary phone calls that waste your time and the client’s money. And you’ll have clients who will know the way to beat a path to your door. It’s a great way to keep good clients and gain more.

About the Author

Laura A. Calloway is Director of the Alabama State Bar’s Practice Management Assistance Program.

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