A couple of years ago, I was a party to some litigation, and I had the mind-shifting opportunity to be a client. I learned a tremendous amount about what it means to be a client. Because these lessons would have served me very well when I was in practice, I share them with you today.
1. Communication is key. Clients want and need to be kept informed of what’s going on. If I were to go back into practice, I would make it a habit to dictate a short note describing any case developments to each client on at least a biweekly basis, more frequently if the case is quite active. And I would be certain to return calls within 4 hours, if only to let the caller know that their message had been received and that I would get back to them with a substantive response on a later date.
Example: I called a lawyer (we’ll call her Ashley) to whom I was referred by another lawyer I know personally and respect deeply. Because she was on another line, I left her a voicemail, briefly outlining what was going on — including conflict information — and advising A that I would like to meet with her on a particular date to provide more information and discuss what alternatives I might have. More than 4 days later, no one from A’s office had returned my call. Can you imagine what the rate of communication would probably have been if I’d hired A? I can. And I called someone else.
2. It’s a subset of communication, but clients want to know when there’s a problem. Whether it’s something directly relevant to the case or whether it’s a potential problem you’ve identified while working on the matter, let your client know about it as soon as possible, especially if you can propose a solution.
3. Be honest. Although many lawyers pride themselves on saying that they can do anything a client wants — to paraphrase one firm’s slogan, “We don’t tell you whether something can be done, we tell you how.” That’s all well and good, but clients want and need honest advice. The fact that something can be done doesn’t necessarily mean it should be done, and that’s something clients must know.
4. Lawyers know that procrastination sometimes pays off in litigation; if there’s a likelihood that a deadline will be extended for a brief, we sometimes prefer to wait to start writing until we know the date is firm. This gives clients ulcers if they find out about it. And, on those occasions when we guess wrong and the date isn’t extended, it reduces the amount of time a client can spend reviewing the filing. This makes for angry clients with ulcers. Communicate! And allow adequate time for client review.
5. Underpromise and overdeliver. I’ve blogged on this topic elsewhere in another context, but it’s important. If you promise a client you’ll deliver a memo, set a reasonable deadline for yourself and send it before that deadline expires. Even if you’ve already given an oral report on the content of the memo, the client will be waiting for the promised document. Don’t disappoint him.
6. Be aware of the context in which you’re providing advice. If you’re advising a company, know about its business and its officers. If you’re advising a person, consider her overall situation. No matter exists in a vacuum, and clients appreciate lawyers who not only recognize that, but who also acknowledge it.
7. Don’t make excuses. If there’s a problem, if you’ve failed to communicate as often or as clearly as the client expects, apologize. Frankly, the excuse doesn’t matter. Make it right.
I learned many more lessons as a client, but these are the bedrock principles. How well are you serving your clients, from their perspective?