Ethics are key to making more money
Want to make more money? Think like a client, says the family lawyer Chaim Steinberger of Chaim Steinberger PC, in New York City.
“Always be client-centric,” Steinberger says, adding that the idea behind that is to avoid surprises. “You always want to make sure that the client knows your capabilities and what you’re going to do.”
Steinberger was part of the ABA CLE panel discussion “Making More Money by Being More Ethical.” The panel emphasized clear and frequent communication with clients, in general, but especially about fees and expectations.
Sending regular bills to clients is as important as staying in regular contact with them, say panelists for the ABA CLE “Making More Money by Being More Ethical.”
One surprise bonus of billing: “If you send clients bills more often, then they think of you more often, and they will send you more referrals,” says Chaim Steinberger of Chaim Steinberger PC, in New York City.
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“Sometimes we forget that this is a service,” says Allison Wood, principal of Legal Ethics Consulting PC, in Chicago, “and that customer service is really what we’re talking about.”
Good service can make a client overlook steep prices or even a case loss. Steinberger cites a Missouri Bar study of why clients rehire a lawyer that shows that high cost or case loss were not factors that prevented a client from retaining a lawyer. “Many lawyers think that what they have to do is to be cheap, or they have to win the case,” he says. “Actually, what clients really want is to feel that their lawyer is concerned for them. We need to show our clients care and concern. We need to project ethics and integrity.”
How to do that? One way is to be upfront about a topic that neither lawyers nor their clients like to discuss: fees, says Steinberger. “Clients feel very uncomfortable talking about fees,” he says. “We lawyers do, too. And the clients mostly expect the lawyers to start those conversations. So it’s very important for the lawyer to bring up that conversation, put in place a fee structure, let the client understand what they’re getting and what they’re going to pay for it.”
Clear communication is important, the panelists agreed. “Just complying with [Model] Rule 1.4 on communication gives you great guidance on how you can manage clients' expectations and be consistent in managing communications,” Wood says. “One of the biggest complaints that people have about their attorneys from a disciplinary standpoint is neglect because they don’t hear from their lawyer. Their lawyer isn’t returning their calls; their lawyer didn’t put anything in writing. The client just doesn’t know what’s going on, and those are the kinds of things that can lead to a very disgruntled client making a complaint with a disciplinary board. And even though the rule 1.4 on communication sounds very obvious, and I’m sure people are saying, ‘I talk to my client,’ it continues to be a big problem.”
Working in the malpractice industry, says Todd C. Scott, vice president of risk management at Minnesota Lawyers Mutual Insurance Co. in Minneapolis, “we have a saying that happy clients don’t sue their lawyers.” He says that if a lawyer has a good relationship with a client — if the client has been kept up to date and has a full understanding of what was supposed to occur on the matter — “usually those are the types of clients that want to work with the lawyer as soon as there is some kind of breakdown in the game plan.”
Steinberger says it’s “the little things” that matter for the client. “First of all, never let your client wait in your waiting room,” he says. “The best thing is for you to get up and go out and escort them. Don’t take emails and telephone calls, and don’t look at your computer or your BlackBerry.”
Give people your undivided attention when they are in the office, Steinberger says. “They should be the most important thing in the world to you,” he says.
Wood says it’s important to set communication expectations from the start. “Make sure that you have definite boundaries with your client,” she says. “I talk to solo attorneys a lot, and they say, I give my client my text and my email. That makes it very difficult to manage all those different communications, and certainly you have some confidentiality issues that you have to always be very sensitive to.”
Whatever portal you use, she says, clients should have a sense of when they can expect to hear from you. “For example, I tell clients I can return your call or email in at least 24 hours,” Wood says. “If I can’t do that, then I try to leave a voicemail or an autoreply on email that says when I will be available or when I will return the call. I think that clients basically are happy when they understand what the parameters are.”
Steinberger has a provision about phone calls in his retainer. “The message that I deliver to clients during the intake and in my retainer agreement is that I want to be there for you,” he says. “So if you have an emergency and you need me or any one of my staff members off-hours, that’s fine — we will give you the phone number or cellphone numbers — but if you call it, we will bill that time or any subsequent time as a result of that at double our hourly rate. It gives the client the incentive to think about whether it’s important enough. I’ve never had to invoke that provision.”
In general, the panelists emphasized that lawyers should never make promises that they can’t keep, and they should never “oversell” themselves. “It really doesn’t make any sense to imply that you can deliver just about anything if it’s not in accordance with your experience or your ability,” Scott says. “You don’t want clients to find out the hard way, after something has gone wrong, that you really have never handled certain kinds of cases before.”
In addition, Steinberger says, “by staying with an area that you know and you do well, you’re more likely to have more satisfied clients and more repeat business and, therefore, make more money.”
“Dabbling outside your area of specialty,” Scott adds, can lead to claims. “So many claims arise because lawyers can be attracted to something that they probably don’t know much about, but they want to give it a try. Maybe there’s the potential of a lucrative result at the end of the matter.”
Unless the new area of business is a natural fit with the firm, it’s generally not a good idea to take it on, Scott says. “To all of a sudden just give it a try, those are the kinds of situations where so many lawyers can open themselves up to a malpractice claim, because before you know it, you might have given some bad advice that will definitely be pretty expensive to resolve,” he says.
Avoid taking on a matter on behalf of a friend or family member as well, the panelists agreed. Chances are high that a case can go wrong, especially if it’s not in the lawyer’s area of specialty, and a family relationship can be destroyed, Wood says.
A case should have merit, too. If a case ends up not having legs, the lawyer must be candid with the client, Wood says.
“You want to minimize the client’s expectations from the outset,” Scott adds. “For some people, it’s not in their nature — it might be very hard to do. But if you’re caught in that situation where later on you have to say, ‘You know, it really isn’t worth as much as I was saying it was six months ago,’ it sounds insincere. All the more reason you’ve got to be honest with the client at all levels.”
This CLE was sponsored by the Center for Professional Responsibility, Section of Family Law, and Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.
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