Note: The following is a guest post by Camille Stell.
Lawyers face a myriad of challenges in today’s legal marketplace. Topping the list: dealing with the 21st century client.
A new century means a new type of client. Trying to apply 20th century solutions to 21st century clients simply won’t work. It will result in sour client relations, which in turn will produce bar grievances and malpractice claims.
So what do 21st century clients look like?
They want less service and expect lower fees. They are “do-it-yourselfer’s”. They diagnose themselves on WebMD and want to Skype with a doctor to get a prescription.
Don’t be surprised when these clients approach legal services with the same mentality. Serving them will require a healthy dose of 21st century skills coupled with tried and true client solutions.
Here are five tips:
1. Start with Communication
Client communication is the number one tool in your 21st century toolkit. Every savvy lawyer will use the following:
- Non-engagement letter – confirm you don’t have a relationship after meeting with a potential client.
- Engagement letter – outline the scope of representation and fees.
- Disengagement letter – to be used when the matter is resolved, when you terminate your client relationship or when your client fires you.
2. Avoid Red Flag Clients
Everyone knows who the red flag clients are, but often, we are blinded when they walk in the door. We need the revenue, we are expanding our client base, or they were referred by a friend.
Spending time on red flag clients will be a drain on your practice. Recognize these red flags:
- The client who says “it’s not the money, it’s the principle.”
- The client who is looking for a guarantee of success.
- The client who has fired or been fired by every other lawyer in town.
- The client who insists they can only afford an inadequate retainer.
- The client who expresses unreasonable expectations.
- The client who demonstrates a pattern of boundary violations, such as constant telephone calls.
- The client who thinks everything is a crisis, makes unreasonable requests or demands special favors.
- The client who has done their own research and refuses to follow your advice. The client who arrives on your doorstep on the verge of an important deadline.
Turn these clients away. If you can’t do this go into the relationship protecting yourself with an adequate retainer and a fee agreement that clearly defines the parameters of your engagement. Be careful to document important decisions. Stay on top of monthly collections.
3. Maintain an Excellent Relationship
Once you’ve got a good 21st century client in the door, you want to keep her happy. Here are some ways to do that:
- Manage expectations from the start. This involves over-communication on your part. You’ve heard your spiel over and over. Your client is hearing it for the first time. It may take multiple times before she understands what assistance you can provide, what you need from her and what the time frame of the representation looks like.
- Agree on a strategy. What does a win look like for your client? Talk with your client early in the case about the multiple options and decisions she will make. When you move a client towards trial for years with no discussion of settlement, she may be shocked by an 11th hour suggestion of mediation.
- Listen. You’ve represented many clients, but every story is different. Hear what your client is saying and make sure your solution fits her problem.
- Keep communication channels open. Return client phone calls and respond to client email. A lack of communication is often the root cause of bar grievances and malpractice issues. You don’t have to be in touch every day. But you need to keep your client involved as her matter progresses. Update her periodically when the case is in a dormant stage.
- Relay bad news promptly. If the motion hearing didn’t resolve in your client’s favor, let her know immediately. Hearing about it in two weeks will not make the news more palatable.
- Put it in writing. Document important steps along the way.
- Talk money. Make sure you are working within your client’s budget. Meet in person or at least by telephone to discuss major changes to the budget. Discuss delinquent payments before they become a problem.
4. Think Twice Before Suing for Fees
Be wary about suing your client for unpaid fees. Very often a claim against a client will result in a counterclaim for malpractice or even a separate ethics complaint.
Ask yourself these questions before making the decision to sue:
- Is the amount substantial?
- Is the amount significant enough to cover the costs, time and aggravation associated with a malpractice suit?
- Is the amount collectible?
- Did you obtain a good result for the client? If not, how does that play with a jury in your malpractice case?
Many state bar associations have guidelines for resolving fee disputes. Be sure you are aware of the rules in your state. Participation in the fee dispute resolution program may be a mandatory first step before taking legal action.
5. Know When to say “You’re Fired!”
Should you ever fire a client? Yes, but this decision shouldn’t be considered lightly. Consult your state’s ethics guidelines. If court approval is required, get it. Talk to your client in person and follow-up with a disengagement letter.
If your client asks for her file, be sure to keep a copy for yourself. When you transfer the file to the client, have the client sign a receipt acknowledging the date of the transfer of the file and stating you will take no further action on behalf of the client in the case.
Every interaction between you and your client is an opportunity to develop 21st century skills. These include communication, collaboration, complex problem solving and innovation.
Make it your goal to become an excellent 21st century lawyer, and you will find that 21st century clients will be beating a path to your door.
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Camille Stell is the Vice President of Client Services for Lawyers Mutual and on the front lines of providing excellent customer service to 21st century clients. Contact Ms. Stell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 800.662.8843; connect with her on Twitter: @camillestell or check out the company’s blog: Byte of Prevention.
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