The Chair's Corner
The Client Is the Enemy

By Keith B. McLennan

So, did the title of this column catch your eye and make you read further, seeking some form of eloquence? If so, I guess I fooled another one. I first heard the statement, “The Client Is the Enemy,” many years ago, when I was just learning how to be a lawyer. One of my mentors used to say it continually. I could never quite understand what he meant—after all, the client is the one who makes a law practice possible. Eventually, I learned that his meaning was multifaceted.

Clients don’t understand what lawyers do, and we generally do a poor job of educating them. As a result, we are often misunderstood, and clients believe the stereotype that we are interested only in ourselves and the almighty dollar. Of course, we lawyers then recall the many instances when clients caused their own cases to be worse—making more work for us—when they genuinely believed they were being helpful. But if you try telling your clients that they screwed up, forcing you to spend more time and thus money to resolve the case, well, chances are you will not have those clients much longer. And they will remember you as the one who caused all their problems.

These disagreements are caused by poor communication. When we explain complex issues to clients, we sometimes speak in code. Clients don’t have a clue what we’re taking about, but they fool us into thinking they do, nodding in agreement as if they were bobblehead dolls. Further, we tend to look at these cases as inventory and expect that clients will understand the mazes that we navigate. They do not. Finally, we sometimes trivialize cases without regard to the financial and emotional toll they take, further fueling client angst. When the client pushes back, we tend to react as my mentor prophesied: The client is now the enemy.

To win the client back from the enemy camp, we need to simplify the information and the method of delivery of that information to the client. The articles contained in this issue of GPSolo magazine are invaluable in that regard. Read them and share them with others. If you follow their advice, you’ll provide your clients the care they need—which in the future will benefit you in spades.

The Client Is King

There comes a time when the restatement of the obvious is necessary. This is one of those times. I have been banging the drum all year regarding the mission to simplify your practice, your profession, and, overall, your life. You can only do that if you have the resources to develop the strategies to make you more efficient and effective. Where do those resources come from? Our clients. Not only is that elementary, it is often overlooked. Perhaps even more elementary (and overlooked) is that the care and feeding of those clients results in a return on that investment many fold.

Sometimes we lawyers just don’t get it, but our success is dependent on our clients. The point is articulated most aptly in the title of our lead article: “The Client Matters.” We need to remind ourselves of that fact. We are not engaged in an academic exercise on some fine legal issue (at least on most days). I consider myself and my office to be pretty typical of law practices across this land. My staff and I sometimes scratch our heads in disbelief over the actions or inactions of clients. We can be outright hostile to clients who commit some boneheaded act or are otherwise asleep at the switch. However, I remind my staff that behind every lawyer there is a client, and without clients, we would cease to exist. Not uncommonly, clients need lawyers precisely because of their failure to listen or failure to use common sense. Thank God for client stupidity.

Communicate or Perish

That being said, when clients come to us to extract them from some thorny problem, we need to communicate with them regarding their case. Although they didn’t seem terribly interested in the consequences of their actions when they committed them, you better believe that once their case has been turned over to you and they begin to get billed for your services, they are going to ask you what’s going on. “Client Communication and Contact” is an article that you need to read and remove and save. I have been practicing now for 22 years, and I still do not have a viable system for keeping clients informed about their cases. This article has finally placed me on the road to a sound reporting procedure.

I was thrilled to see that someone actually agreed to write the article, “Yikes! How to Deliver Bad News and Disclose Mistakes”—that duty is always troubling for lawyers, who tend to agonize over the task and push it aside. I once tried to institute a Queen of Hearts Day in my law firm, when we would all swap one or two of our “dog” cases for another lawyer’s “dog” case. Not only could a new lawyer take a fresh look at the case, but the agony of the case I had been handling could be eliminated with that fresh look. My belief was that it would help ferret out those ticking time bombs that can turn into malpractice claims. Sadly, that idea was shot down, but this article is a reasonable substitute.

Billing As Positive Client Communication

Despite conventional wisdom, the billing of your clients is not the antithesis of care and feeding. We all should be paid fair compensation for our hard work. “Billing 101” not only will help you make the client feel good about paying the bill, but it also will foster additional work. If anything else, it will help you realize you should never discount from your timesheet, but only from the final bill.

Additional Simplification Tools

Topics such as the handling of client files when your firm splits up, customer service essentials, the dos and don’ts of maintaining social contacts with clients, the pros and cons of offering non-legal advice to start-ups, the ethical hazards of solo and small firm practice, and how to prepare clients for depositions, trials, and other adversarial proceedings complete the set of tools in this issue of GPSolo to help you simplify your practice. Failure to utilize these tools will only make things more difficult. That, in turn, will force you to take your eye off the ball of efficient management of your practice and the benchmark of our profession: helping clients.

Copyright 2008

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