2. Set and Manage Reasonable Expectations
Clients want to know when they will hear from you. Establish your accessibility policy at the time of hire, if not at initial consultation. I personally make it clear that I, barring extreme situations, run a nine to five, Monday through Friday, practice. Calls and emails are generally returned within 24 hours or by Monday if received Friday. My people know this because I tell them this up front. There is no one right way to manage your practice with regard to client communications, but you have to have a clear communications policy, follow through with it, and, of course, communicate it. Clients are unhappy when they expect X and get Y. Tell them what to expect and then deliver. If on some occasion you can’t deliver, touch base through email or staff to notify the client when you will return his or her call or email so the client is not in the dark.
3. Set Boundaries but Cultivate “Professional” Friendships When Appropriate
Family law matters can take years to resolve and often make repeat performances through post-judgment and subsequent modification. We spend countless hours with our clients, become acquainted with our clients’ families and friends, stay informed about their children’s accomplishments, and, ultimately, hear it all—where the proverbial bodies are buried, the vanilla, and occasionally less-so details of their intimate lives, etc. We stand next to our clients as they move through the stages of grief. Sometimes we are our clients’ closest, if not only, confidante. One must learn how to sincerely meet the needs of the client—to be a representative, a mentor, even a friend within the professional context—but ultimately maintain the professional/client divide. Failing to do so could directly compromise your ability to remain objective on behalf of your client. Family law attorneys need to develop a rapport, much like a physician would strive for an excellent bedside manner. The client should primarily feel confident you understand his or her issue, comprehend the law, and are able to provide competent advice. If you can, in addition, communicate to the client that you genuinely empathize with the client’s circumstances, by cultivating what I refer to as a professional friendship, the relationship will often be better served—the delivery of difficult news can be easier to bear, for example, and unexpected developments that may, and do, occur can be easier to weather.
4. Do What You Said You Are Going to Do, When You Said You Were Going to Do It
If you are drafting documentation, tell your client when to reasonably expect to receive the same for review. If you can’t deliver because something came up, such as emergency hearings or an illness, call and email to confirm and also tell your client when you will complete the work. Then do it. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver, and don’t leave your people in the dark, or they will presume they are not a priority, become frustrated, and eventually move on.
5. Confirm in Writing (aka CYA)
Follow up in-person and phone conversations with letters or emails or both. Our clients are under stress. People process information differently. Add to that the fact that we also take for granted that we tend to speak a different language. How many clients ask things like, “What about the quick claim deed?” or “Do I have to answer these interrogations?” Although these misstatements may get a chuckle, they are indicative of the fact that we operate in a world that is foreign to most. Confirming everything—details of conversations, decisions about trial planning and strategy, your expectations of your client, the dates and times of upcoming hearings, etc.—in writing is imperative. Doing so keeps the client informed and gives you a record of your statements so as to avoid a client claiming you said something other than what you actually relayed.
6. Execute Clear and Consistent Billing Practices
Clearly explain your billing practices, both orally and in writing, at the time of hire. Clients want to know how this is going to work and what is expected of them. Execute your billing practices with accuracy and consistency. Send timely bills. Respond to questions about billing promptly. Send five-day letters in accordance with your billing practices. Strike your appearance as necessary. This work is hard and you deserve to be paid for your time. Clients should understand your expectations and be prepared to compensate you for your time. If they do not, let ’em go.
7. Do Not Make Guarantees
If you promise a specific outcome or guarantee a specific result, you set yourself up to look like you have no idea what you are doing when things go haywire. Even if your local court handles certain hearings or matters with near extreme consistency, always inform the client of the various potential outcomes and the factors that could result in deviation from that expectation. If you set up a client to expect a certain outcome and you don’t deliver, you lose your credibility with your client and the attorney-client relationship is threatened, if not ruined.
8. Just Listen
Clients often simply need a safe place to talk. We are not therapists, and we should not pretend to be, but giving people time to tell their story and feel that they are being heard is key to the client feeling confident that you understand his or her situation. If a client feels understood and validated, trust follows. You don’t need to break out the crystals and get all touchy-feely, but in this line of practice, you probably need to be more than a hired gun who expects clients to spit facts, rapidly make rational decisions, and get in line. If you can’t listen to people’s stories or don’t like to, you are in the wrong practice area.
9. Educate Your Client
Clients need to make informed decisions. To do so, they have to be informed. You are their law professor. The onus is on you to ensure that your clients understand how and why the law functions as it does, what relief is actually available to them, etc. Spend time educating your clients about applicable statutes, case law, and rules. When they understand the game, they understand how to play and are ultimately able to better manage themselves and their expectations, and either reach a resolution in their case or accept the outcome of litigation.
10. Find Humor
If you have survived in domestic practice more than a few years and not dropped a match on your file-covered desk and sprinted off into the sunset, then you likely have a rather interesting sense of humor. Our clients are typically good people at their worst, as we often hear. Finding a way to connect by injecting humor into your interactions—appropriate to the individual client and case, of course—is imperative to establishing a rapport with your client that can make the duration of a family law matter more tenable and perhaps ultimately a decent and transformative experience for both the client and the attorney.