Client management is invariably part of any lawyer’s repertoire, but one firm in South Carolina took it to the extreme. Via Jim Calloway :
But one South Carolina law firm has decided to use its web site to make certain their potential clients have realistic expectations about the firm before they even schedule an appointment. Check out the Client Expectations (Realistic or Unrealistic) section of their web page. Some people may be put off by the blunt language with statements like “We do not work on the weekends and do not provide emergency numbers for the weekends” or “Do not think we are perfect. We make mistakes.”
Blunt. Honest. Maybe they thought it best to remove the part about “just send money and leave us alone.” The lawyers may not be long on client service, but at least they aren’t hiding it from their potential clients.
At a blog called Avoid a Claim, which apparently is favored by lawyers who anticipate a claim, Dan Pinnington writes:
It seems like this firm has made a strategic decision to say “If you are going to a high maintenance client, you’re probably not going to be happy with us and we’re probably not going to be happy with you.” Good on them. They will have happier clients, and they will be happier and less stressed lawyers.
This strikes me as a scorched earth policy toward clients. The problem with this discussion, aside from the cavalier approach, is that clients generally don’t come to a lawyer asking themselves, how can I interact with this lawyer in a way that makes the lawyer’s life most pleasant. This has become a recurrent theme lately, with lawyers thinking that clients exist primarily to pay them money and assure them work/life balance. That the client has a legal problem doesn’t seem to enter into the equation.
Client management is both art and science. There are some hard realities that impact both lawyer and client, such as the fact that an hour on the phone holding one client’s hand is an hour lost from working on the case of another client. Serving clients isn’t a matter of catering to their whims and making them think you’re the kindest person on earth, but make them knowledgeable about what the legal system in general, and you as lawyer, can do to achieve their goals, and then providing at least that if not more.
The South Carolina firm that put out its blunt “expectations” page does family law, one of the most miserable practice areas around. Anxious and angry clients are likely to feel the need to grab hold of someone on a Saturday night when their soon to be ex-spouse calls 27 times in a drunken stupor, complaining of the client’s ancestry. Even lawyers want some time off on the weekend to play with their kids. We all get it.
The answer isn’t to say you don’t work weekends, but to manage clients’ understanding of what constitutes an emergency, worthy of disrupting dinner at a nice restaurant with the family. There are real emergencies that happen at inconvenient times. Nobody promised that it was convenient to be a lawyer. Suck it up. Who else should your client turn to when an emergency happens?
But the “high maintenance” client is usually a client who has been oversold. The old adage, undersell and overdeliver, comes into play. When your clients know that you will contact them immediately upon any news in their case, they won’t call you to ask if there’s anything new. When your clients know that you return telephone calls as soon as possible, they won’t call 10 times to try to reach you or scream at your receptionist when you’re in court and unavailable. When you don’t make outrageous promises that you can “fix” anything, they won’t become equally outraged when it doesn’t happen.
Ironically, one of the most troublesome ways to deal with clients is to become their best friend. Clients need lawyers. If they want companionship, they should get a dog. It confuses roles when lawyers assume the position of mother, therapist or pet. Clients often need someone to talk to, to vent, catharsis, during the pendency of a case. To some extent, lawyers can offer their ear. But when the ear gets chewed off, we’re appeasing the client but no longer serving him.
Aside from the problem of our not being qualified to offer the comfort or psychological treatment a client needs, we also give away our ability to fulfill a higher function, of providing the hard, detached advice that a lawyer owes a client. It becomes very difficult to talk a client off the ledge when our relationship is all about handholding.
The “expectations” page offers some interesting insight into client management, which should benefit both client and lawyer by clarifying our respective roles, explaining how the relationship will be most effective and providing an honest assessment of what lawyers can do in our service to clients. But when the “expectations” offer little more than they should not annoy us, it’s time to find a different line of work. Clients don’t exist to make our lives happier.
Lawyers serve clients. We do that by being lawyers. We have no business doing less or promising more, and we help neither the client nor ourselves by pretending otherwise.