Legend has it that years ago in Toronto there was a law firm which embarked on what was then a somewhat unusual exercise. At the urging of their marketing consultant, this firm surveyed their clients to ask them what they thought of how the law firm delivered its services.
When the marketing consultant delivered his report to the partners, the partners were shocked to find out that the clients had many complaints. After deep and careful consideration, the partners came to the only conclusion which made any sense to them: The clients were wrong. You see, what the clients did not understand was that the law firm (and all other law firms) were compelled to operate as they did. With this new understanding of just how wrong the clients were, the law firm proposed a marketing campaign to educate their clients on why the firm had to work the way that it did.
After regaining his composure, the marketing consultant realized that he had gained new insight into the legal profession. Lawyers are sometimes not the most client-centric people in the world.
Over my many years of practice, I developed a loyal client base. I was no more client-centric than the next lawyer when I started out, but I did learn a few things as I went. Here are some things which worked for me:
Care About Your Clients
1. Care about your clients more than you care about how much you can bill them. If you cannot put your client’s interests before your own, you are in the wrong business. Get out. Go into politics.
2. Care about protecting your clients more than you care about protecting yourself from them. A constant flow of C.Y.A. letters does not impress the client, especially when they know that they are paying for your time to write them. Conveying to your clients that you do not trust them is not a good basis for a long-term relationship. There are ways to protect yourself without being annoying about it.
Listen More, Talk Less
3. Listen to your clients before you advise them what to do. There is nothing wrong with spending 45 minutes out of a 60-minute meeting listening to the client, asking questions, and figuring out what their goals are, before giving advice. You are not impressing the client by speaking when you have no idea what matters to them. Think about your relationship with your doctor. How impressive is it when your doctor rushes to a diagnosis while appearing to be short of time to hear about your symptoms?
4. After you do provide advice, listen to your client again to see how they are reacting to your advice. Just because you think you have found the perfect solution to the client’s problem, does not mean that the client is comfortable with that solution. Maybe suing their father is the perfect legal solution, but they would rather be given an alternative strategy.
5. Admit when you do not know things. Tell the client your plan for finding out what you do not know. If the plan is to do some research, tell the client whether or not you plan to charge them for the research. If the best plan is to refer the client to another lawyer, do that. You would be surprised how grateful clients can be when you are honest enough to tell them that you are not the best person for the job. If the better solution is to involve another lawyer, let your client know that you are not abandoning them and are willing to stay involved to monitor things if they want you to do that.
6. Don’t tell your client that you are delegating their matter, or part of it, to someone junior because it will save them money when the real reason is that you are too busy or do not like doing that part of the work. Sometimes delegating to a more junior lawyer saves money because the junior person has a lower hourly rate. Sometimes it does not, because the junior person is less experienced and less efficient. Clients can smell when they are not getting the straight story, and it does not smell good to them.
7. Don’t hold onto work that could be delegated to a junior lawyer or a clerk and be done at a lower cost because you are having a slow billing week and want to keep your billable hours up. Clients do not like that either.
8. Take a reasonable degree of risk and give your clients recommendations instead of just saying “here are the options; you have to make the business decision.” (Read more about that at https://www.murraygottheil.com/2021/04/03/lawyers-take-risk-to-have-clients/.
9. Don’t be an order-taker who sits and waits for clients to call and ask for help. Be proactive. Reach out to your clients from time to time with ideas that let them know that you are thinking about them.
10. Tell your clients that they can call for quick advice without expecting a bill. You want to be the first call that they make when they have a problem, and that will not happen if they fear being billed for every question. There is a reason for the old lawyers joke: “Client: How much will it cost to ask you 3 questions? Lawyer: $500.00. What are your other 2 questions?” I noticed over the years that clients were much more likely to call their accountants when they had a problem instead of their lawyer, even when the problem was clearly a legal issue. Clearly their accountants were seen as being more approachable.
11. See your clients from time to time, just to find out what they are up to and to maintain the relationship. Buy them lunch. Clients know that your time is valuable and appreciate when you use it to show an interest in them. And although it should go without saying, I know that for some lawyers it is not obvious: don’t charge them for lunch or for the advice given at lunch.
Meet At Your Client’s Office
12. Where an in-person meeting is required, always volunteer to have the meeting at the client’s office (and do not always charge for travel time). With that simple offer you show your client that you value their time, and you differentiate yourself from other lawyers. While you are there, you have an opportunity to better understand their business. If it is your first time visiting, always ask for the tour. Your clients are proud of what they built and like to see that you are interested in learning about it.
13. Be responsive. Being in court or at a closing is a challenge, not a free pass to avoid giving your client an immediate response. An auto-response on your email or voice mail greeting can let the client know when you can respond in person and who they can contact to assist them in the meanwhile. You can often forward an email or voicemail message to your assistant or associate and ask them to reply and see if they can help. Acceptable response times are counted in minutes and hours, not days.
Talk About Fees
14. Speak to your client about what things will cost at the outset. In the old days, we used to think that if the client agreed to the hourly rate, it was best if we did not speak about how much it would all cost, so that if things took longer than we anticipated we were not committed to a fee quote. One thing that you can be sure of is that if you have not spoken about what your services will cost, your client will have made an assumption as to what they will cost, and the client’s assumption is usually that it will cost less than you think it will cost.
15. Continue to speak to your clients about what things will cost throughout the process, and bill them regularly so that it becomes real to them. As things change, keep the client updated on how legal costs will be impacted. There is no better way to know whether your client is onside with what the legal costs are adding up to than to send a bill and see how quickly it gets paid. I always said that I wanted to know if we had a problem with a $3,000 bill, not a $30,000 bill.
16. Talk to your client about the impact of their instructions on the legal bill and discuss the cost-benefit analysis of proceeding in the manner that the client suggests. When the client wants to proceed in a manner which will increase the legal bill, they have to know that and provide the instructions with a clear understanding of the cost of those instructions.
17. Stick to your fee quotes wherever possible. When it is not possible, speak to the client about what has changed and come to agreement before billing more than your quote.
18. When you do have a fee dispute with a reasonable client, carefully consider whether the problem arises from your failure to communicate or an honest misunderstanding on the client’s part. If either is the case, settle quickly at a number that the client is truly comfortable with, and you may end up keeping the client. In 40 years of practice, I never once both won a protracted fee dispute and kept the client.
Don’t Be Petty
19. Don’t nickel and dime your clients. If you have billed $5,000, don’t follow up with a bill for $75.00 for some minor clean-up matter. Don’t charge your good clients for notarizing a document or retrieving an old file.
Work To Deadlines
20. Never work to an unspecified deadline. Even if the client does not set a deadline, bring up the issue of timing and agree on a deadline. If you have not discussed a deadline, you can be sure that the client has assumed something about when you will deliver, and most likely it is sooner than you are planning to deliver.
21. When you are going to have trouble making a deadline, call the client before the deadline and discuss the matter. Most of the time reasonable clients will agree to extend the deadline when you give them some notice prior to missing the deadline. When you miss the deadline without speaking to them first, they tend to be less understanding. My practice was to call the client and explain that I was having trouble making the deadline and offer some options. These usually included extending the deadline, having another lawyer get involved or working all night and weekend to make the deadline. The client almost always agreed to extend the deadline.
Try Not To Act Like a Lawyer
22. Finally, and most importantly, don’t act like a lawyer, or at least don’t act like a stereotypical lawyer. I was often told that I was unlike any lawyer that the client had previously met, and it was meant as a huge compliment. Figure out what clients do not like about lawyers, and act differently. Start with losing the arrogance that many lawyers project.
It all comes down to the simple adage: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Treat your clients with respect. Think about how you would want to be treated if you were the client.
I used to tell my associates that when it came time to issue the bill, I wanted them to get out of their chair and sit in the client chair on the other side of their desk. I then wanted them to read every line of the bill that they were about to issue in detail, pick up their pen and imagine that they had to sign a personal cheque to pay it. If they were satisfied with the outcome of that test, the client would likely also be satisfied.