No matter how long an attorney has been in practice, initial client meetings are always a balance of two kinds of stress: nervousness and excitement. Both can be managed and overcome by following a few simple guidelines.
All attorneys have their own styles, characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses, which dictate client interaction. Like snowflakes and judicial temperaments, every initial client meeting is unique, with its own set of facts, personalities, and circumstances. Therefore, each should be treated uniquely. However, many of these guidelines are universally applicable and useful when preparing for initial client meetings.
Your clients are people, not parties
It is easy to forget this point. Although the client sitting in front of you may soon become “Plaintiff X” or is already “Defendant Y” in litigation, or is soon to be “Party of the First Part” in a corporate transaction, an initial client meeting should not begin by diving directly into the legal issues, but by getting to know the client on a much more basic level.
I am not suggesting that the meeting begin like the application process for the latest online dating service: “What are your favorite bands . . . What do you like to do on rainy Saturday afternoons?” Still, the meeting should not begin with questions like “Do you deny that, as the president of your company and its 40 percent member, you breached your fiduciary duties when you diverted the corporate opportunity away from your company and sent it to your brother’s competing entity?”
After making initial introductions, it is always a good idea to get to know each other before engaging the client on the substance of the legal matter. The fact that the client has already walked through your door is a good sign of trust, yet undoubtedly both the attorney and client will have questions about one another that go beyond the scope of the legal issues. Discussions about the client’s business (e.g., what are your annual revenues, how long have you been in business, how many employees and offices do you have, what is your company’s annual revenue) or about your professional background (e.g., where did you go to law school, what are your areas of expertise, what are your professional affiliations) will help both of you relax prior to engaging in discussions about the case.
Preparation leads to confidence, confidence leads to calm
To make the best impression on the client, never begin an initial client meeting in a vacuum. Try to obtain at least a little information before having the first meeting with the client, even if the meeting takes place on the phone. Before the initial meeting, depending on the matter, ask the client for the complaint, the relevant agreements, photographs, or even a short e-mail with a factual synopsis to review.
This initial preparation will result in a more efficient client meeting and convey your genuine interest in the client’s issue. It will communicate that you are interested in having the most efficient (i.e., cost effective) meeting possible. The preparation will also give you an opportunity to analyze the facts, perform some research, and create a basic meeting agenda. Importantly, a little early due diligence will make you confident and calm.
Manage your client’s expectations, and formulate an initial plan
It is not unusual for a client to expect answers by meeting’s end. Unsurprisingly, many clients expect only favorable answers; while common, it is unrealistic. The attorney should insure that by the meeting’s conclusion the client is given realistic expectations. At first, clients may have difficulty with answers that are unfavorable to their cause. After all, they came to you because you are the “expert,” and they expect you to have all the answers. Additionally, some clients believe that they have not “done anything wrong,” so the issue should be resolved in their favor. Therefore, having a discussion with the client regarding potential pitfalls, alternate methods of resolution, “the unknown,” and other factors that may influence the final result is appropriate. However, be mindful of the aggressiveness with which the devil’s advocate position is conveyed—while a candid and honest discussion is important, putting the client on the defensive from the outset is dangerous, as it can adversely affect not only the client’s trust in your abilities, but whether the client will be honest with you about the facts of the case. This is where individual styles, characteristics, and manners are very much at work and the attorney has to trust his or her instincts.
No matter how prepared, confident, and thorough you are during an initial client meeting, it is unusual for the meeting to end with all questions answered and an agreed-upon plan of action. It is important to instruct the client that whatever course of action you and the client agree to moving forward, it is an initial plan, and it is not only subject to future changes based upon the circumstances, but it will change.
Follow through on your promises
A little-known, yet ubiquitous secret about first impressions between attorneys and clients is that the process of the initial client meeting never truly ends—nor should it. Cases will develop, projects will work through completion, and the client and attorney will have countless meetings. If the relationship is solid, attorney and client likely will work together on issues in the future. However, no matter how long the relationship endures, in the back of his or her mind, the attorney should always presume that the initial meeting is continuing and that the attorney is still being interviewed. The client should never be taken for granted, nor these initial client guidelines ignored.
Your clients should be treated with respect, and true interest should be given to their endeavors. You should always be as prepared as possible for client meetings to insure that the time together is as productive and efficient as possible. Client expectations and case-management strategies should remain in the back of your mind as a matter progresses and be revisited from time to time to insure that your advice and actions comport with both.
In short, client trust is earned, and should never be assumed. Keeping these guidelines in mind for the initial client meeting and meetings thereafter will help both you and the client get off on the right foot and have a strong and healthy business relationship into the future.