With Attorney Client Relationships Minor Details Matter
Due to a recent move, my wife and I are experiencing the joys of learning to work with a new HOA. On the upside, this HOA is much better run and far more financially sound than the one we left back in Montana. As to the downside, well let’s just say that there have been a few kinks in several processes that most homeowners here have found more than a bit frustrating. For example, in preparation for the grand opening of the clubhouse, homeowners had to verify credit card information in person three times, requests for landscaping services have been hit or miss, and recent clubhouse restaurant charges were incorrectly billed.
I’m confident these current kinks will be resolved in due course because the HOA has effectively worked through others. One of the things I’ve come to learn, however, is that in an effort to rush to the finish line and get new processes up and running, there has been a history of overlooking various minor details. Oops. Had they slowed down and taken the time to make sure each process would work as planned and confirmed that staff were properly trained, the outcome of frustrated homeowners could have been avoided. Things didn’t have to go down the way they did.
I do understand the challenges that our HOA has and will continue to have due to the rapid growth of this new community. They’re caught between the rock and a hard place because homeowners are paying their dues with an expectation that promised services will be available. Unfortunately, time pressures and homeowner demands can’t be allowed to become an excuse for overlooking the small stuff and that’s what continues to happen.
I chose to share this story because attorneys and their staff can all too easily fall into the same trap as our HOA. Trying to stay on top of all the matters of all your clients isn’t easy, particularly when everyone wants their matter completed post haste. I know that at times it can feel like there is never enough time and/or the workload will never end. After all, new matters will always be coming in to fill the void left by completed matters. That’s how one stays in business after all. Just don’t let this reality become what fosters inattention to even seemingly minor details. Minor details matter, particularly in the practice of law.
The kinds of minor details I am referring to are details of presentation, interaction, and follow-through, all of which can be overlooked all too easily. Things like allowing a bill to go to a client that has one or more errors in it, continuing to send letters or email to a client with that client’s name misspelled because the name was initially entered into the firm’s database incorrectly, forgetting to return a call because a message slip was out of sight and thus out of mind, or forgetting that you promised a client that the work on their matter would be completed by a certain date.
Are these kinds of oversights cause for concern when they happen? Certainly, some clients will be forgiving because they do understand that attorneys have significant demands placed upon them; and I will admit that I’m not aware of any malpractice claims that arose out of a misspelled name in an email. So, while this topic isn’t about malpractice directly, it is about managing client relationships, which can impact your exposure to a claim. When viewed in this light, I do see this issue as important.
Here’s something worth thinking about. ALPS is a significant consumer of legal services. We would be remiss if we did not review the bills submitted to us for payment, and reviewed they are. We have come across billing errors such as overcharges, personal expenses that had no business being submitted, and charges for work done on files that had nothing to do with us. We also find that with some files, bills come in on a very infrequent basis and when they finally do, they can be for a large sum of money, much more than we were led to expect.
When such things happen, our response as the client is often one of concern; and I believe most attorneys would feel the same standing in our shoes. The concerns that arise are along the lines of “If the bill contains these kinds of errors, what does that say about the quality of the legal work being done,” or “If bills are sent infrequently is it because our legal matter is not receiving the attention it should be.” Trust can easily come into question, and all too readily erode if the attorney or the firm that failed to pay attention doesn’t appropriately address the situation upon hearing any concerns. Further, if left unaddressed, we may eventually take our work elsewhere all because of an apparent inattention to these seemingly minor details.
I suspect most clients respond similarly. A repeatedly misspelled name in correspondence, a client continually kept waiting, a history of limited bills or bills with errors, a history of having work completed past promised due dates, forgetting a client’s name, constantly allowing interruptions in client time in order to answer phone calls or to respond to staff all give a clear message. The client is just not that important. It may be that this message is not what is intended, but the message will be received as such regardless.
Yes, errors on bills and interruptions during a client meeting are going to happen from time to time. Know that when they do, explanations and apologies can help rectify the situation. Clients are able to forgive and forget. However, when consistent carelessness or personal inattention is the norm, clients may not be so inclined; and here’s the rub, they may also not let you know what’s upsetting them. Remember that actions speak louder than words and it’s easy to forget that this is a two-way street.
I have heard it said that client care, personal attention, and reliability are fundamental to an attorney’s success. This success is not in reference to a legal win but to the business success of establishing and maintaining strong client relationships that foster the creation of trust and confidence in the attorney. The trick is in seeing that the client feels that both their legal matter and their personal self are important to you, their attorney. There is real value in remembering that it is you who is in their employ. Always treat your clients accordingly.
I do understand that finding the time and energy to go that extra step to pay attention to some of these presentation, interaction, and follow-through details can be difficult at times. I struggle with it myself. It is just so easy to let minor things slip a little here and there. The effort not to, however, is going to be worth it over the long haul. View it as a long-term investment in personal and professional relationships that can help grow your practice with additional referral and repeat business. And while you may never know when or where, it will also reduce your exposure to a malpractice claim, a reality that is nothing to scoff at.
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.