Written by: Steven J. Lane, Herman, Herman & Katz
NOBA Family Law Committee Chair
For those of you young lawyers (or old ones) who handle hourly cases (or even contingent cases), consider this general advice in terms of client management.
First of all, you need to make a concerted effort to return client phone calls within 24 hours. One of the most frequent complaints against lawyers is that they don’t return phone calls. At the same time, when you send out your monthly bill, clients often complain about the fees charged for the phone calls that the lawyers made to the client at the client’s request.
It is a delicate problem, but if, over time, a lawyer continually fails to return phone calls within 24 hours, the build up of client frustration is such that it takes its toll on the attorney-client relationship and may either make it more difficult to manage the client in representing them, or it may cause the client to simply seek out other counsel.
If you know in advance that you are going to be out of town, or in a deposition, or in trial, and may not be able to return a phone call within 24 hours, then at least have your legal assistant or paralegal tell the client that you are in the middle of a trial or deposition and/or otherwise unavailable for a few days so that, unless it is an emergency, the client will understand why you didn’t return the phone call within 24 hours.
Separate and apart from whatever advice or updates you may provide to the client by phone, you also need to keep the client informed by letter, e-mail or text message as well. The more information you provide to the client, the less likelihood that they will need to call you regarding the status of their case. Send your clients copies of every letter, pleading, discovery request, etc. that is either generated by you or opposing counsel. It is much easier to keep your client educated as to the status of the case if the client is receiving pleadings, correspondence, etc. contemporaneously as opposed to clients becoming frustrated if, after several weeks or months, they have no idea as to the status of their case.
When communicating with the client, do not give the client a false sense of optimism. You need to be straight with the client in terms of the merits of their case and/or the result that you hope to achieve. Many times a client is not satisfied even if you achieve a result that is far superior to what you expected. The reason for this is that the client’s expectations are often much higher than your expectations because you may have seen this same situation before and have a better idea as to what a realistic end result will be.
To the contrary, the client may be experiencing legal proceedings for the first time and either has no idea as to what a reasonable end result should be, or simply has an unachievable and unreasonable expectation of result.
You need to encourage your client to contact you if they are, in any way, displeased with developments in the case and/or your work product. Regardless as to whether the client’s complaint is reasonable or unreasonable, you need to know what they are feeling when they are feeling it. If not, then long term dissatisfaction that goes on continuously without discussion will eventually lead to a complaint by the client to the bar association and/or termination of the attorney-client relationship.
Steven J. Lane
Chairman, Family Law Committee
New Orleans Bar Association