Pittsburgh Legal Back Talk's Cliff Tuttle recently asked "are you working in the complaint department? His post on the subject dealt with people who tend to complain fruitlessly and waste energy. Attorney Tuttle's question got me thinking about my own law practice. Was I working in the complaint department? Was I spending most of my time dealing with client complaints? Does your law practice resemble the baggage claim department at the airport? If the answer is yes, may I offer a few suggestions?
1. Return Calls in a Timely Fashion:
One of the biggest complaints clients have is that their attorneys don't return phone calls. Clients who don't receive return calls tend to make repeated follow up calls. Each time they dial your number, their blood temperature goes up a degree. Eventually that blood will be boiling.
As a general rule, its good to return calls within 24 hours. If you can do it within 2 hours, the client will sing your praises. You'll start building a reputation as a reliable practitioner. We have some older clients who still remember our founding partner for returning phone calls. Calls made forty years ago. If you can't return a call, have someone from your support staff check in with the client. Just don't make this a habit. The client wants to hear from you, not your secretary. If there is a lull in your case, it is also a good idea to check in with the client. Let them know that everything is fine. They will appreciate it.
2. Avoid the Trouble Clients:
OK, this is easier said than done. Depending on your practice, you simply may not have this option. Sometimes you don't see the crazy until it's too late. (Editor's tip: It's always the eyes. Pay attention to the eyes and look for occasional twitching.) Ask yourself: Does the client have unreasonable expectations from the start? Did he have previous counsel? Does he second guess your advice? Is he holding several binders full of laminated pages? Sometimes, the aggravation is not worth the legal fee. To counter this, our office incorporated the "heebie geebie" test.
Years ago I read an article by Attorney Norm Pattis where he discussed this "method" of retaining clients. You may have experienced this phenomenon yourself. It's that "spider sense" tingling that lawyers get telling them that the prospective client sitting across from their desk is well...maybe a little nuts. The word of advice given was to follow your instinct. If something doesn't seem right, it will not bode well for you to take the case. As a freshly minted attorney, I was under the mindset that this was hogwash advice. If a client was willing to pay, how hard would it be to deal with the occasional Napoleon complex. I have since seen the error of my ways. You will surely spend more time dealing with unreasonable demands and unfounded complaints. Time that could better be spent on your more serious workload. I usually try to observe how they treat my support staff. If they are rude, I often turn down the case.
3. Avoid Accommodation Work
Accommodation work has it's place. Sure it's nice to help someone out once in awhile. Sometimes karma will even reward you for it. One of our biggest settlements came as the result of a referral from an elderly pro bono client. Her subsequent referral actually led to a case that paid for our operating expenses for a year. Before you go Mother Teresa on me, please be aware that the opposite is usually true.
Accomodation work can be a time sucker. Don't volunteer your services if you cannot commit the time to complete the task. Just because you're doing something for free, doesn't mean you are not obligated to put in your full effort. The simple statement "I'll look into it" may open the flood gates to a constant stream of follow up phone calls and visits seeking advice on what to do next. In some scenarios, you will begin resenting the client and will be tempted to ignore calls. Once you start down that path, you are just asking for a grievance. It may even backfire on you. If you do too much accommodation work, they may start undervaluing your services. In my own practice, I was getting approached by friends and family for help with speeding tickets, filling out small claims forms and the like. Soon, I became the "speeding ticket" guy. When a friend had a good case, he took it to another attorney. His response to me was "I didn't know you did the higher level stuff."
4. Follow Through with Promises. You may be familiar with the old saying "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." There are days where I have every intention to finish something. Sometimes, there are just not enough hours in the day. Your exhausted and you just want to go home. If you promised to do something for a client, it's best to try to get your second wind and get it over with. If it means returning a promised call to an annoying talkative client, do it. It will spare you dealing with a complaint the next day.
5. Write Down Everything
Its important to keep accurate records of the advice you give. Clients can have selective memories. Sometimes they hear only what they want to hear. From the first meeting you should discuss your clients expectations. Make sure to take notes with dates and times. (For example: On April 12th we discussed your DUI. I informed you that if you drove on a suspended license, you would get 30 days in jail. I followed this up with a letter.) Whenever possible, follow up discussions with a letter going over what was discussed. If you don't have time for a letter, send an email. Make sure you are both on the same page. You may also want to review your fee agreement. Make sure it is detailed enough and that the client understands your arrangement.