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As lawyers, we have a lot to offer our clients. However, it’s up to us to present it in a way that helps them understand and appreciate the value they’re receiving from us.
I recently drove my mother to the dentist, and when she came back out from her appointment she had a beaming smile, carrying the new toothbrush and freshly cut pink carnation that our dentist routinely gives patients as a way of saying “thank you” at the end of each visit. I couldn’t help but think that there are some things we lawyers could do better to ensure that our clients are happier when they leave our offices—and to make them want to pay our bills, too.
Part of the problem that clients have with legal services, especially with paying for them, is that they’re so intangible. With other things, such as a new car or flat-screen TV, buyers have something they can see, touch and, hopefully, are still enjoying a lot when it comes time to make the monthly payment. But with legal services—not so much. Often clients aren’t even present when a matter is decided in their favor, and the moment when you get to deliver the good news is just that—a fleeting moment only. So it’s up to you to create an atmosphere that serves to reinforce the value of the intangible benefits that result from your hard work. Here’s an idea for how you can do that with individual clients.
■ Even if yours is mainly a paperless office, each time you set up the file for a new matter, also prepare a hard-copy folder for the client. Have your firm name printed on the front, and include contact information for yourself and your legal assistant inside the cover. As an added touch, include a mini-legal pad and pen for taking notes.
■ Present that folder to the client and, at the meeting when you agree to take the client’s case, place a hole-punched copy of the signed fee agreement in it. State in the fee agreement that this is the client’s own file and that you are maintaining a copy of the file as well. Ask the client to bring the folder to all future meetings with you.
■ Establish a system to ensure that, throughout the case, you provide the client with a copy or, whenever possible, the original of all documents as they’re produced in your office or received from the opposing side or the court. Have the documents hole-punched so all the client has to do is put them in the folder. Be sure to retain copies, whether paper or electronic, for your own file.
■ At the conclusion of the matter, debrief the client before you hustle off to put out the next fire. Make sure the client really understands what happened during the case and that he’s comfortable with, or at least reconciled to, the outcome. Find out what he liked, and didn’t like, about working with your firm and how you can improve the experience the next time.
■ Give the client all original documents that you still have, and get a signed receipt indicating you’ve turned the original file over to the client. (This will save a lot of time and trouble down the road, since you won’t have to find the client to return the originals and you’ll be free to destroy your own copy in accordance with your jurisdiction’s rules and your file-retention policies, whenever that time comes.)
■ Also during the final meeting, let clients know how much you appreciate their business. Make sure they’re aware of the other types of matters your firm handles, and that you hope they’ll think of you whenever they or someone they know has a legal problem in the future.
Send your bill for legal services as soon as possible after they’re completed. This is the point at which the client will feel the greatest sense of value received—and will be happiest to pay.
Laura A. Calloway is Director of the Alabama State Bar’s Practice Management Assistance Program.