Communications gaps that drive clients crazy

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Published on 8/21/06

I've written many times in this column that most disciplinary actions filed against lawyers are from their own unhappy clients. The majority of those complaints involve poor communication. Here are five common examples plus suggestions for avoiding or mitigating them:

  1. Unresponsiveness
  2. The problem: Failure to return phone calls and respond to letters or faxes.

    The solution: No matter how valid your reason, including being in court, it's not a good excuse. Clients want to be assured that their matter is being dealt with. They don't want to feel ignored. If you are unable to respond personally, have a secretary, paralegal or other lawyer ready to step in and say that you are presently unavailable and will return the call or letter by a certain time or date.

  3. Voice-mail limbo
  4. The problem: Leaving a recorded message, or (even worse) being asked to press number keys to leave a message, increases clients' frustration level.

    The solution: Have a real person - even if it is a virtual assistant and not a full-time employee - answer all initial calls to the firm. If you're available, you can take the call. If you're not available, then the same person gives the caller the option of leaving a voice-mail or written message. Each option empowers the client through dealing with human beings.

  5. Engagement misunderstanding
  6. The problem: The client believes the lawyer hasn't achieved and never understood the desired results - making for an unpaid bill and possible malpractice suit.

    The solution: From the very start, when drafting the engagement letter, focus your conversation on understanding the intent and desires and wants of the client. If the two are in harmony, and the client understands what to expect, there is little likelihood of a problem. Going through this process of detailing and negotiating to prepare the engagement letter enables you to avoid a client with unrealistic expectations or demands.

  7. Radio silence
  8. The problem: The lawyer is doing a great job with documents, the court or the opposing party, but the client is never told - and may refuse to pay the bill when it comes due.

    The solution: Clients appreciate communication; the more, the better. Show your clients that you're doing your job by sending them copies of documents, by writing or calling them. "Paper" clients, keep them informed and tell them what's happening at every step.

  9. Incomprehensible bills
  10. The problem: A bill that only says, "For legal services rendered," or that is inaccurate or confusing.

    The solution: Start in the initial client meeting by explaining what and how you are going to bill. Then explain the billing process again, in writing, in the letter of engagement. Be complete in your billing statements. Use action verbs to describe your services. Clearly indicate the specifics of what was accomplished. This gives clients an appreciation of the effort expended and the successes achieved on their behalf.

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