Is the client always right?

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Published on 3/19/07

I came across a post from lawyer and blogger Norm Pettis, who related his experience when he asked a legal ethics panel if a lawyer could withdraw a client's claim if the lawyer concluded the claim was without merit.

The panel's unanimous response was that the client had to consent to such an action. As Norm -- who vigorously disagreed with this viewpoint -- paraphrased the message: "If a client insists on pursuing a meritless claim, then you must do what the client wants, whether it makes sense or not."

Communication skills are obviously vital ingredients to a successful lawyer-client relationship. It's essential that the client knows what the lawyer is doing, and that the client approves of the tactics to be taken to achieve the client's strategy/goal.

As we've observed here before, the starting point for this communication is an effective engagement agreement. Make sure clients understand that they're entering a two-way relationship. The lawyer agrees to perform to the best of his ability in accord with professional standards, and the client agrees to communicate and cooperate fully. (Need I say that this includes paying the bill on time?)

Going through the process of detailing and negotiating to prepare the engagement letter enables you to avoid a client with unrealistic expectations or demands and who believes that your estimates, whether of time or outcome or costs, are guarantees.

Discussing engagement terms will frequently uncover the client who will in the future express irritation with delay, who will chronically complain about everything, who will demand constant or instant attention, or who expects unrealistic or abnormal hand-holding.

Beware of clients who cannot or will not agree to what they want their lawyer to accomplish. Telltale warning signs of future problems are clients who:

  • nitpick over fees and budgets;
  • insist that their matter is "life and death" -- such clients will often be future sources of last-minute emergencies that at best are irritating and at worst can result in errors under pressure;
  • use pressure tactics to urge that their matter be handled first once the engagement begins;
  • demonstrate a bad attitude toward lawyers and the judicial system, or suggest that they know better than the lawyer about what needs to be done; and
  • cannot articulate what they want you to achieve.

As a lawyer, you must understand the intent and desires and wants of the client. Only then can you shape your assessment of the services to provide. If the two are in harmony, and you inform the client (so the client understands clearly) what to expect, there is little likelihood of disagreement.

We must find out not only what our clients need, but also what they want. We must communicate with them at their level of understanding. We must find out how they best receive information and then provide it to them in a way they can understand.

The obligation to promote quality communication between attorney and client and to assure that the client has a good understanding of what to expect lies squarely with the attorney, as part of his professional responsibility.

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