Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Where Am I Supposed to Go? Calming the Nervous Client.

I am often approached by random people with the question "Are you a lawyer?"  It is usually followed by "Sir, please get off the ambulance."  I also get this question in courthouse hallways when I am looking dapper holding a briefcase.  It often comes from some other attorney's anxious client as he or she vainly looks for their missing barrister.  I can only surmise that I have one of those faces that gives people the need to ask me twenty questions.  "Where do I need to be?", "Should I talk to the prosecutor myself?"   "What if the judge comes out?" "What if my lawyer doesn't show?"  "Can I use your phone to call my lawyer?"  

I would imagine that for many attorneys, some legal matters become old hat.  You are well aware which court room you have to be in and the procedures that will be involved.  You know that your client isn't going to jail that day. If you're a well seasoned lawyer, you might forget that your client is not as well versed as you are in the judicial system.  For many clients, their matter may be his or her first exposure to a court house.  Something as insignificant as a speeding ticket may be a life changing experience for them. 

I offer myself as an example. A large portion of my law practice involves pro bono work for lead footed relatives. Sometimes, I wish I never told my family that I had passed the bar. Apparently "Aunt Bertie" had gotten a ticket for speeding to her weekly bridge game.  I had received a call from her son asking if I wouldn't mind helping her out.   Knowing this particular courthouse gave attorneys the courtesy of jumping the line,  I told him drop his mother off at the court house at 9:30.  It was not necessary to come earlier because the files would not be ready.  Unfortunately, I neglected to tell Aunt Bertie why it was OK to be a little late.

Aunt Bertie's ticket clearly stated that her matter was scheduled for 9 AM.   As such, she arrived at the courthouse one hour before it opened. Convinced that she was going to spend the night in jail,  she had packed a toothbrush in her purseWhen the hour struck, she panicked.  Bertie entered the hallowed halls and began frantically searching for me from courtroom to courtroom. At 9:15 my desperate aunt demanded to see the judge so that he could call my office to locate me.  Thankfully, the marshal told her to wait for her attorney.  I strolled in at 9:30 AM and took care of her matter. She practically cried in relief and then proceeded to pummel me with her purse.

If I had I taken the time to explain the process, I could have saved Aunt Bertie some aggravation and myself from a beating. While I am not suggesting that you should hold your clients hand walking up the court house steps, it's not a bad idea to let them know what they will be encountering.  Clients can be an anxious bunch.  In addition to what court room they need to be in, I give my client a heads up on the process.  I tell them where to go once they enter the court house.   I tell them where they will stand before the judge and what they will encounter. I tell them not to worry if they don't see me at nine.  I may be in the back room speaking to a prosecutor. I let them know when the judge usually comes out.  "You'll hear a few knocks on the door and then the judge will enter. I will be up there with you doing all the talking.  Don't worry." 

I guess I try to make them as familiar with the process as I can.  By putting them at ease, I find that the clients tend to be more appreciative of my efforts.  They may even be more willing to refer my services.     

May I also suggest some client service tips offered by the Lawyerist.


Anonymous said...

Your reference to life changing experiences reminded me of the extreme vulnerability I felt while in the hands of legal system. My issues were visitation and support. Of course, what for me was the single crucial issue of the Age, the lawyers found mundane. From the opposite side of the practice, as a client, I often wonder what's the proper approach to selecting and motivating my legal eagle? What is the proper care and feeding of an advocate?

Equus Spirit said...

That "welcome packet" and such as advocated by the Lawyerist is just fine, but exactly who is going to do that? The attorney? The legal assistant? The receptionist? How exactly does that figure into billable time? Don't get me wrong here-I'm totally in favor of it, but I'm also a bit confused on how you're going to justify the time/expense of it. In a large enough firm, you might even be able to have a designated "Client Relations" person who does nothing but walk people through courtroom processes, dress codes, etc. (Hey, wouldn't that be nice? Just refer that client with the rasta dreads to that individual and you don't have to even THINK about his court appearance!) The possibilities are intriguing....