Six Things That Drive Clients Crazy (And What You Can Do to Avoid Them)
by Ed Poll
Because clients usually call lawyers when they have a problem, attorneys need to find ways to eliminate the unnecessary irritants that really send clients up a wall. Here are some of the most common complaints that clients have about lawyers plus suggestions for avoiding or mitigating them:
Failure to return phone calls and to respond to letters or faxes is the number one complaint clients have about lawyers.
THE CURE: The main reasons lawyers give for failing to return phone calls—being out-of-the-office, in trial, or doing research on another matter—are usually valid, but that's not a good excuse. Clients want to be assured that their matter is being dealt with. They don't want to feel ignored. Returning phone calls should be considered a top priority activity. If you are unable to respond personally, have a secretary, paralegal, or other lawyer ready to step in and say that you are presently unavailable and will return the call or letter by a certain time or date.
When a client "reaches out and touches" a technological robot without a human face, the stress level goes up. The loss of human contact equals a loss of power, and a loss of power is an irritant for the client.
THE CURE: Voice mail can be a good tool, but not when the client feels trapped by it. Make sure that a receptionist, telephone operator, or secretary—a real person—answers the phone for the initial call to the firm. If you're available, you can take the call. If you're not available, then the same person gives the caller the option of leaving a voice mail message or a message with the operator. Clients are empowered by dealing with human beings, not an electronic system.
Clients want to know what's happening with their matter. Even though the lawyer might be doing a great job with documents, the court, or the opposing party, if the client doesn't know that, then there's bound to be a problem—usually at fee-paying time.
THE CURE: Clients appreciate communication; the more, the better. Show your clients that you're doing your job by sending them copies of documents, by writing, or calling them. "Paper" the client. Keep clients informed and tell them what's happening at every step of the process.
Clients hate paying for unnecessary service, e.g., using FedEx or messengers when the U.S. mail will do, or for service that they feel provides no value. This open-checkbook problem is most often an issue with open-ended fee arrangements where lawyers run up costs on the client's nickel.
THE CURE: Lawyers need to be very sensitive to costs that are passed on to the client. The test for extraneous costs goes like this: If you were paying for it out of your pocket, would you do it? Since unnecessary costs frequently occur because of attorney procrastination, one way to avoid the problem is simple: Do the work in a timely fashion. That way, you won't have to use rush services.
Because they are risk-averse and tend to be conservative, lawyers have a reputation for being reactive—for being "Mr./Ms. No." But clients usually want someone to suggest ways to make something happen, rather than a list of reasons why not. If lawyers are merely reactive, the client may believe that the attorney is only a technician, and a technician is a commodity who can be easily replaced based on pricing, among other factors.
THE CURE: Clients are looking for lawyers who will help them stay out of trouble or achieve their objectives. That's why they appreciate advice that offers creative approaches to problems. This is called being proactive, and it creates a strong bond between the client and lawyer. To become more proactive, learn the business of the client. Arm yourself with enough knowledge to have an opinion and say: "If you do this, I think that will happen." Clients will always need to make the final decision, but they want to know what you think.
A bill that only says: "For legal services rendered" is an incomplete bill. Clients want to know what they're being charged for and what the successes (or failures) have been. Bills that are inaccurate, vague, or confusing are sources of irritation to clients.
THE CURE: Start in the initial client meeting by explaining what and how you are going to bill. Then explain the billing process again, in writing, in the letter of engagement. Be complete in your billing statements. Use action verbs to describe your services. Clearly indicate what transpired, what was researched—who did what, when, and what was accomplished. You want clients to have an appreciation of the effort expended and the successes achieved on their behalf.