Don't Minimize The Importance Of Managing Your Side Of the Attorney-Client Relationship
Over the years, numerous articles have been written on how to successfully manage attorney-client relationships. Typically, these articles emphasize effective and thorough communication skills, maintaining a professional presentation at all times and in all work spaces, learning all you can about your clients in order to anticipate additional legal needs they might have, taking the time to say thank-you and the list goes on. Worthwhile info but time for something else.
I have been thinking of late about how hard all the above might be if a lawyer actually didn’t really like many of his clients. What if he (or she) just found them irritating? Look, I love being a dad but I can assure you that when our kids were still at home there were more than a few times over the years when I was seriously irritated with one or more of them. My point is this. Such feelings are normal in relationships of all types so irritation is likely to be part of the picture in some attorney-client relationships. This is when I realized this topic is worth addressing because we can all do something about it, as long as we’re aware of the issue and choose to do so.
It would be easy to now launch into a short pontification on client selection. All I will say about that here is this. Choose wisely and make sure they can pay. However what I really want is to look at what you can do to try to minimize the amount of time you spend being irritated with others, primarily clients, because when you’re irritated with any or all of them, the relationships involved can become stressed and your work product can suffer.
The obvious initial question I asked myself was why might a lawyer become irritated with one or more clients? The immediate answer that came to mind was because she wasn’t properly managing her side of the relationship. Again, when I was irritated with my kids, it was often because they were bothering me at a time when I didn’t want to be bothered. I respectfully suggest that clients can get under your skin just as easily if you allow it. The good news is this is something you have a great deal of control over.
Let’s start by considering your overall workload. If, or perhaps when, you allow your workload to get out of hand, you become the one responsible for giving clients a reason to bother you. Depending upon the frequency of the interruptions, relationships can start to become strained and go south big time. Here’s what I’m getting at. Almost by definition, effectively managing attorney-client relationships demands that you manage your side of the relationship. You must help them help you do what they have hired you to do.
So what can you do? For starters learn to say no. Say no to additional work that’s out of your comfort zone or work that you truly don’t have time to take on. Think about it. When you say yes to work you really should be saying no to, this is when procrastination most likely comes into play and can invite relationship problems. After all, who isn’t annoyed by someone (like a client) asking about why work isn’t being done when we know deep down it should have been. When you fail to say no, you are the one creating the problem, not your clients. Learn to say no. It can be as simple as saying, “While I sincerely appreciate your continued loyalty, my legal judgment tells me that you will be best served by my assisting you in finding an attorney with the level of experience this particular matter calls for.”
In a similar vein, if you have allowed your workload to rise to the level where any interruption is truly burdensome or the workload is such that it’s beginning to seriously impede your ability to have a life outside of the office, perhaps the time has come to hire additional staff. Think about it this way. For the legal practitioner, relief isn’t spelled r-o-l-a-i-d-s. It’s spelled d-e-l-e-g-a-t-e!
More importantly, educate your clients. Literally help them help you. Set aside specific blocks of time to respond to email, take and return calls, be available for walk-ins, or to just focus on client matters without interruption. If you fail to establish, and then protect your productive time, who will? If it helps you to follow through, block out these times in your calendar and give your staff the authority to help enforce these boundaries.
Next, let every new client know what your communication policy is and work to educate your current client base as to the changes. You might place a short paragraph in your engagement letter or new client information sheet. Let them know when you will be available to take and return calls and define what an emergency is and what it isn’t so everyone is on the same page. Staff can take messages and offer what assistance they can when you are not available.
Establish a policy on responding to email and, as a risk guy, I strongly suggest you allow yourself time to carefully consider your response to any substantive inquiry. Shooting out an immediate response to every email that comes in is a bad idea. How about text messages? I find them to be quite an annoyance. As with email, establish a policy and let everyone know what it is. If you don’t want clients texting you, you will need to tell them and also explain why. I immediately think about preservation, miscommunication, and acknowledgement problems. I don’t know about you; but I sure as heck am not going to have my cell by my side every minute of every working day so I can check every text that I receive as they come in. In fact, my phone is off more than it’s on when I’m on the road.
In my mind, this issue is so important that the following bears repeating one last time. In order to effectively manage your attorney-client relationships you must help your clients help you do what they have hired you to do. If you happen to now be, or ever find yourself, a little irritated by some of your clients, I encourage you to consider whether or not the problem might be you. If and when it is, that’s good news because you can definitely do something about it. You just need to decide to do so. Truth be told, how do you think my kids and I all made it through their teen years? I took my own advice and considered what my role in any relationship problem might be. All I can say is it made a world of difference.
Authored by: Mark Bassingthwaighte, Risk Manager
Since 1998, Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq. has been a Risk Manager with ALPS, an attorney’s professional liability insurance carrier. In his tenure with the company, Mr. Bassingthwaighte has conducted over 1200 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented over 550 continuing legal education seminars throughout the United States, and written extensively on risk management, ethics, and technology. Mr. Bassingthwaighte is a member of the State Bar of Montana as well as the American Bar Association where he currently sits on the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility’s Conference Planning Committee. He received his J.D. from Drake University Law School.