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Person to person: reclaiming the lawyer-client relationship.

Most of our clients have had no experience with a lawyer or the legal system. They are apprehensive and intimidated. It is our job to make them feel at ease.

Client relations: This area of practice presents more problems for lawyers than any other. Nothing is more important to lawyers, after their own sense of integrity, than retaining client goodwill and building client confidence. Without clients we have no cases. With satisfied clients we can have a growing practice.

All of us have had the unhappy experience of seeing client relationships go sour. Sometimes this is inevitable: The chemistry just isn't there, an unavoidable misunderstanding arises, or perhaps the client's expectations are not met. Yet even in these areas we can minimize, if not eliminate, problems and build bridges toward greater understanding if we observe some fundamental rules.

I have been practicing law for nearly 30 years. I do not claim to have had friction-free relationships with all my clients. However, I hope that by now I have reamed a little in this area, and I would like to share some fruits of my experiences with you. Before proceeding to particular tips, I want to emphasize that we always need to be aware of the subjective factors in human relationships and consider those factors when dealing with clients. With that in mind, let's look at how to build bridges that will result in improved client relations.

Evaluate carefully

The first stage of good client relations is case evaluation. The moment a prospective client walks into our offices, an evaluation process begins. The question immediately arises: Should I take this case? We must evaluate people, facts, and case values.

This involves screening cases. Many of us have file cabinets with cases that are marginal at best--if not in terms of liability, then damages. Today, some insurance companies admit liability but offer nothing in settlement. "If you want it, come and get it" is what some of these companies tell us. If we don't screen our cases, we are going to find ourselves with disgruntled clients who have unrealistic expectations.

The time to screen a case is at the beginning, before major expenses are incurred for depositions, expert testimony, and so on. We can usually soon tell whether a particular claim is one we wish to undertake. We should consider preexisting conditions, the amount and extent of the property damage, the plaintiff's personality, and the plaintiff's history of litigation. We should also decide if there is adequate coverage in the case.

If we are going to properly evaluate a case, we must conduct a preliminary investigation. It is better to spend a few dollars to send an investigator to interview witnesses before a claim is filed than after. Often, information from these thumbnail investigations helps us decide whether to proceed with a claim.

We need to evaluate the personalities of prospective clients sitting in front of us in our offices. Is this someone I can truthfully and honestly fight for in a courtroom? Is this person someone I can believe in, someone I like, and someone I trust? Or do I have a basic feeling of avoidance or dislike when I look at or talk with this person?

For my part, I can never give my best efforts to someone whose cause I don't believe in. I might not particularly like the person, but if there is something I can hang my hat on, some aspect of the law I believe can be vindicated through my participation in the case, some fundamental principle of justice, or something I can invest my enthusiasm in, I can usually do a pretty good job. But if I don't like the client or believe in the cause, or if I distrust the client, I am headed for trouble if I take that case.

I need to evaluate the potential client's attitude toward the claim. Does the person exhibit an unrealistic or vengeful attitude about the claim? Does the person seem obsessed by the claim? Does he or she appear to be completely subjective regarding the validity or value of the claim?

Even if the claim is valid, and even if the insurance is adequate to pay a recovery, if the client values the claim at $50,000 and it is only worth $10,000, you are going to have a client relations problem no matter how good a job you do. If you detect obsessiveness or overvaluation in the initial interview, stay away from the case.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

The second fundamental aspect of developing good client relations is communication. More of us fail in this area than in any other We fail to transmit our thoughts, feelings, values, and ideas to the client. The next time a prospective client walks into your office, ask yourself this question: What message am I and my office communicating to this person?

Is the office austere and forbidding, or is it warm and inviting? Is the receptionist cold, unconcerned, or indifferent, or does the receptionist seem to care that this person is bringing his or her legal needs to your office? Do we play a waiting game with the prospective client, or are we prompt in keeping our appointments? All these nonverbal factors strongly affect creating a favorable first impression.

I want my office to be comfortable, and I would like prospective clients to learn something about me while they are waiting to see me, even if it is just for two or three minutes. This is where to display framed newspaper articles about past cases in which you have participated, biographical information, or specific honors or awards you may have achieved. Anything that helps clients learn more about the lawyer they are about to see can be helpful.

However, I caution that the material and the message conveyed ought to be warm and human, not forbidding. Most clients have had no experience with a lawyer or the legal system. They are apprehensive and intimidated. It is our job to make them feel at ease.

Communication continues after we have shaken hands and brought the prospective client into our office. Be "real," and be yourself with a client. Don't put on airs. Speak like a human being, not a lawyer. Use simple words and phrases that the client can understand.

Many people don't know the legal system or how it works. Let this be your rule and motto: "Explain, explain, explain." Always show a willingness to explain how lawsuits are drawn, how process is served, what a complaint is, what an answer is, what the timetables are, what depositions are, and what all the other phases of the litigation process are. People won't remember everything you say, but if you take pains to explain in a friendly and informal way, they will feel more at ease and have greater confidence in you.

Clients are there to tell you their story. Listen. Don't take notes during the initial client interview; listen. There will be plenty of time for note taking later. Let your entire attention be focused on the client telling the story.

Make it clear that the client is the most important person in the world to you at that particular moment. Forward all your telephone calls. Nothing is more annoying to a prospective client than to be interrupted in the middle of a sentence while you take a call or rush out to receive a message.

I usually make it a point, when a client sits in my office, to call my legal assistant and say, "Be sure to hold all calls and messages while I am speaking with Mr. Jones. I don't want my attention distracted by anything." This makes Mr. Jones feel important, which he is, and encourages him to confide fully in me.

Be responsive. Return calls, letters, and messages promptly. Everybody knows this, but the issue of responsiveness remains a divisive issue in client relations. Many bar complaints are filed over failure to return telephone calls and to communicate with clients.

Contact all clients periodically. A simple phone call in which you ask how the client is doing or feeling can work wonders in terms of how the client regards you.

My office sends a letter in which we tell clients that "we haven't forgotten you" and give a brief update of what is happening in the case. A letter like this can forestall a lot of questions.

Do not send a copy of every deposition, pleading, and brief to the client. That could raise more questions than it would answer, and it wastes a lot of paper. A simple update about the case will usually suffice.

Be protective. There is probably no area in which lawyers unintentionally commit more ethical violations than in the area of client confidence. Many times in our offices we become so informal that staff members talk about clients and their cases in ways that might be construed to be a divulging of client confidences. We must watch this area very carefully.

Be careful what you leave lying around on desks where people can see it. Make sure your staff does not discuss client business outside the office. In the office, staff should discuss client matters only while working on a file. Staff members should be told not to discuss client business in front of other clients who are in the reception area.

It is important to let clients know that we respect their privacy and that the facts regarding their cases will be safe with us.

It is also especially important to instruct clients not to discuss their cases with each other, particularly if we represent a number of people who work at one establishment. I recently had to send a cautionary letter to a number of workers' compensation clients who have been referred from a particular factory because they were sharing information about their files. This can produce conflicts, jealousies, and resentments among clients.

Get to know your client personally. If you are going to be taking someone before a jury or a judge and discussing the most intimate aspects of the person's life, you need to know, understand, and believe in this person. How has the injury affected his or her personal life: home life, work life, and recreational life?

You need to get the "feel" of that person's life if you are going to effectively communicate it to a trier of fact. It may be appropriate to visit a client at home and share a meal with the client and his or her family. In this way you will be able to break the ice with family members who may be witnesses and get a true picture of the injury and how the atmosphere at home may be affected by it.

In any event, you will achieve a degree of social intimacy that makes you more than an arms-length advocate. You will become a human being who is vitally interested in knowing your client as a person and in securing justice for your client.

A final point regarding communication: As the trial date approaches, take clients to the courthouse. Show them around; let them watch a trial. Have them sit in a witness box. Let them become used to the proceedings so they don't feel terror when they walk through the courthouse door.

Since this is an age of television dependency, it would be a good idea to have a videotape explaining the mechanics of a trial or the mechanics of a deposition. This way, in addition to the verbal messages we communicate to clients to prepare them for deposition or trial testimony, they can actually see how it is done.

In addition to all the above, it may even be wise to have a trial demonstration to help prepare the client to testify. Some lawyers have actually set up "courtrooms" within their offices for this purpose.

Eliminate problems

The final phase of good client relations, one often overlooked, is elimination. It is possible to avoid problems before they begin and eliminate them after they begin if we follow a few guidelines.

One way to avoid potential problem areas is to have candid discussions with the client. For example, if an associate is going to be working on the case, let the client know about that at the beginning. If there are problems with the case, such as preexisting conditions or no property damage, tell the client at the outset that those problems exist. This will help avoid inflated expectations.

Never give your estimate of the money value of a case early in the representation. The client will hold you to it. The person may forget what you said about contributory negligence or comparative fault on the first day, but he or she will never forget a certain sum you said you could get for the case. After a case is developed, you can give the range of its value--but never a definite figure.

We must eliminate the potential problem of who is liable for expenses. In Tennessee, a client is ultimately responsible for case expenses, and it is unethical for lawyers to tell clients they will pay these expenses. We may advance the expenses, but we are not ultimately responsible for them. We must emphasize this at the first meeting and when the contract is signed.

This avoids any questions about whether or not we told a client we would pay for depositions and court reporter fees out of our fee.

Another way to eliminate problems is to be ready to compromise. For example, it is rare that you want to fight with your client over money matters, especially in small cases.

We are often willing to shave our fees to encourage a client to accept a settlement we believe is fair. If a misunderstanding should arise with a client about a certain expense or the size of a fee, it is almost always better to compromise on the fee rather than to have a disciplinary complaint filed against you or to have a person out in the community badmouthing you at every turn.

I realize there are times when lawyers have to stand their ground and maintain that what is right is right. But usually the amount of money in question is not large and not worth a major controversy. A spirit of accommodation, a willingness to compromise, and a concern for the client's welfare will usually override most financial considerations.

Finally, remember that to clients the most important case or claim that you are working on is theirs. If you can convey that feeling to clients; if you can communicate simplicity, responsiveness, and receptiveness to people who bring their cases to you; and, above all, if you can show them that you really care, your client relations are bound to improve and your practice will prosper.
COPYRIGHT 1997 American Association for Justice
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Gober, Gary R.
Publication:Trial
Date:Mar 1, 1997
Words:2474
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