Would you start a personal relationship without talking about expectations, preferred communication styles, and what you can (and can’t) offer the other person? For most of us, the answer is of course not. Yet, as lawyers, we sometimes hurry through the courting process when starting a relationship with a new client or expanding our representation of a current one.
It generally goes something like this: The new client is referred to you, or a current client calls you in a panic. Sometimes even before you have had a chance to clear conflicts, prospective or current clients launch into a discussion or send you emails regarding their situation. It took me a few years into my practice to feel really comfortable putting up the stop sign and gently redirecting the conversation, while acknowledging that their issue is definitely important and one I will handle if conflicts clear and we both agree that I’m the right fit for them. If there is any doubt that you can or want to take the case, be careful with this first contact. Case law generally construes a lawyer’s fiduciary duty broadly—even during preliminary consultations. And when you refuse the representation, be sure to promptly send a declination letter and consult ethical rules for possible duties regarding confidential information.
So, conflicts cleared; now what? A good way to kick off a positive relationship with a new client while significantly reducing the risk of a malpractice or disciplinary action is to simply spend time at the beginning listening to your new client and discussing with the principals what they expect from the relationship. If they are sophisticated consumers of legal services, ask them about their “points of pain;” that is, what their former lawyers did that they didn’t like, what they got right, and so on.
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