February 01, 2016

Practical Aspects of Communicating with a Class: A Plaintiff’s Perspective

Lucas Homer

In the day-to-day work of complex litigation, there are many different manifestations of the word “complex.” This includes communicating with clients and putative class members, the lion’s share of which is conducted by young attorneys. With some diligence, you can go from client questionnaires to settlement checks without gaining too many grey hairs (let’s not pretend they’re avoidable).

In the day-to-day work of complex litigation, there are many different manifestations of the word “complex.” This includes communicating with clients and putative class members, the lion’s share of which is conducted by young attorneys. With some diligence, you can go from client questionnaires to settlement checks without gaining too many grey hairs (let’s not pretend they’re avoidable).

When dealing with a single plaintiff in one case, there are typically few issues in a world of email and smart phones. Scale that up to a class of one thousand and you’re herding cats. Effective communication with a large group of clients demands consistency and attention to detail. Class members are still clients who need enough information to make informed decisions, comply with requests for information, and meet the other demands of litigation (see the standards of Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.4). Whether you’re working on a team of attorneys to communicate with clients or by yourself, there is no way to remember every phone call, letter, or email.

At my firm we have an online “client portal” system that allows us to document every interaction we have with every client. This serves as a check on both attorney and client. If I make several attempts to contact a client, when they later claim we never communicated something to them, we have documentation of those attempts. On the other hand, if you forgot to do something for the client, you can quickly refresh your memory and correct the error. Both situations will probably happen at least once, but if you memorialize all of your interactions in a centralized location, you can keep those issues to a minimum.

Another consideration when working with a class is the means of communication. While most young lawyers probably prefer email and texting, there is a segment of our population that still prefers phone calls and letters. Early on in the attorney-client relationship, make a point of establishing the client’s preferred medium of communication. Frequently there is a shared preference for email, but be aware of the occasional computer-illiterate client and adjust accordingly.

For formal benchmarks in the case that apply equally to everyone in the class, a physical letter is appropriate. Clients respond more to a letter communicating an important deadline rather than an email or voicemail saying the same thing. The tangibility of a physical letter and seeing the firm’s letterhead seems to make a deadline more important, too.

Outside of those formal points of reference, use whatever proves most effective. If I have trouble contacting a client, I start with a voicemail, follow up with an email, and progress to a letter. In each communication, I refer back to my earlier attempts. For classes that include members from all over the country, your firm in Ohio might not seem familiar to somebody in California, and that person might harbor some skepticism about your identity. Referring back to the other forms of communication that you used to reach out builds familiarity and quells their fears.

Even though there is a class or putative class, clients remain individuals with independent perspectives. They might be skeptical about the action’s worth or whether they can trust you. Have the patience to listen first. For many, this is the first and only time they will be involved in a class action. They might have a negative view of lawyers or they might just be intimidated by legal jargon. Speaking plainly, honestly, and taking the time to explain the process to them goes a long way.

Lucas Homer

Lucas Homer most recently worked as a staff attorney for Stueve Siegel Hanson LLP in Kansas City, Missouri.