Volume 18, Number 1
January/February 2001

The Business of Law

Six Things That Drive Clients Crazy

By Edward Poll

"I hate lawyers," the man said directly and with a hint of anger.

I was conducting a client survey for a lawyer, trying to gauge where the weak spots were in his operation and looking for ways to improve both his service and his office procedures. The surprising thing about this blunt feedback when I asked the client about his impressions of lawyers in general was that it wasn’t unique. I’ve heard the same thing many times in one form or another. Ill-founded or not, there are reasons why people rank lawyers way down on the list in terms of job performance.

Usually, lawyers fail to perform in ways that satisfy their clients not because they don’t know how—they do. But I’ve discovered that many are so busy that they go on automatic pilot and forget the basics of customer service or client relations—such as regular communication and keeping the stress level low. Clients call lawyers when they have a problem. Business questions, a death in the family, a divorce, an accident, a bankruptcy—all are potential stress producers, and the last thing clients want is more stress or irritation because of their dealings with their lawyers. Lawyers need to find ways to eliminate the unnecessary irritants that really annoy clients.

Here are some common client complaints, plus suggestions for avoiding or mitigating them. How do you rate yourself?

Poor Responsiveness

Failure to return phone calls and to respond to letters or faxes is the number one complaint clients have about lawyers.

The cure. The main reasons lawyers give for failing to return phone calls—being out of the office, in trial, or doing research on another matter—are usually valid, but that’s not a good enough excuse. Clients want to be assured that their matter is being dealt with. They don’t want to feel ignored. Returning phone calls should be a top priority. If you are unable to respond personally, have a secretary, paralegal, or other lawyer ready to step in and say that you are presently unavailable and will return the call or letter by a certain time or date.

Another reason for clients’ unhappiness, particularly applicable to faxes and letters, is that they expect immediate replies because of the proliferation of modern technological tools. Fax machines and overnight delivery services make instant communication possible, but that doesn’t make it desirable. In order to avoid a misunderstanding about the timeliness of written replies, the lawyer must tell the client about the response policy at the very first meeting.

Talking to a Machine Instead of a Person

When a client "reaches out and touches" a technological robot without a human face, the stress level goes up. The loss of human contact equals a loss of power, and a loss of power is an irritant for the client.

The cure. Voicemail can be a good tool, but not when the client feels trapped by it. Make sure that a receptionist, telephone operator, or secretary—a real person—answers the phone for the initial call to the firm. If you’re available, you can take the call. If you’re not available, then the same person gives the caller the option of leaving a voicemail message or a message with the operator. Clients are empowered by dealing with human beings, not an electronic system.

Not Knowing What’s Going On

Clients want to know what’s happening with their matters. Even though the lawyer might be doing a great job with documents, the court, or the opposing party, if the client doesn’t know that, then there’s bound to be a problem, usually at fee-paying time.

The cure. Clients appreciate communication; the more, the better. Show your clients that you’re doing your job by sending them copies of documents or by writing or calling them. "Paper" the client. Keep clients informed and tell them what’s happening at every step of the process.

Unnecessary Costs

Clients hate paying for unnecessary service (e.g., using FedEx or messengers when the U.S. mail will do) or for service that they feel provides no value. This open-checkbook problem is most often an issue with open-ended fee arrangements where lawyers run up costs on the client’s nickel.

The cure. Lawyers need to be sensitive to costs that are passed on to the client. To test whether a cost is extraneous, ask yourself, "If I were paying for it out of my pocket, would I do it?" Because unnecessary costs frequently occur as a result of lawyer procrastination, one way to avoid the problem is simple: Do the work in a timely fashion. That way, you won’t have to use rush services.

Lack of Innovation

Because they are risk-averse and tend to be conservative, lawyers have a reputation for being reactive—for being "Mr./Ms. No." But clients usually want someone to suggest ways to make something happen, rather than a list of reasons why not. If a lawyer is merely reactive, the client may believe that the lawyer is only a technician, and a technician is a commodity that can be easily replaced based on pricing, among other factors.

The cure. Clients are looking for lawyers who will help them stay out of trouble or achieve their objectives. That’s why they appreciate advice that offers creative approaches to problems. This is called being proactive, and it creates a strong bond between the client and lawyer. To become more proactive, learn the business of the client. Arm yourself with enough knowledge to have an opinion and say: "If you do this, I think that will happen." Clients will always need to make the final decision, but they want to know what you think.

Vague, Confusing, or Incomplete Bills

A bill that says: "For legal services rendered" is an incomplete bill. Clients want to know what they’re being charged for and what the successes (or failures) have been. Bills that are inaccurate, vague, or confusing are sources of irritation to clients.

The cure. Start in the initial client meeting by explaining what and how you are going to bill. Then, explain the billing process again, in writing, in the letter of engagement. Be complete in your billing statements. Use action verbs to describe your services. Clearly indicate what transpired; what was researched—who did what, when; and what was accomplished. You want clients to have an appreciation of the effort expended and the successes achieved on their behalf.


Edward Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC, is a certified management consultant in Los Angeles who advises lawyers and law firms on how to deliver their services more effectively while increasing their profits at the same time. He is the author of Secrets of the Business of Law: Successful Practices for Increasing Your Profits and the developer of The Tool Kit for Buying or Selling a Law Practice . He can be reached via e-mail at edpoll@lawbiz.com.


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