Lawyer Communications with Clients: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate”

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With all due respect to one of the best prison movies (besides, in this humble blogger’s opinion, The Shawshank Redemption), Cool Hand Luke, the oft-repeated quote in the title of this blog is very apropos to the legal industry.

Did you know that the number one reason most clients give for firing their lawyers is a failure to communicate?  When a client hires a lawyer, they are hiring them because they have a problem that needs to be resolved.  Because, as I have said before, no one wakes up in the morning thinking “today I’ll hire a lawyer” without a reason, and that reason is usually keeping them up at night.  So, they have hired you to be their representative so that they can sleep better at night.  

The thing is, just because they have hired you doesn’t mean that their anxieties have been alleviated.  They want to be kept abreast of what is happening in their case. However, there are usually two reasons why attorneys do not respond in a timely manner to their clients’ calls or emails. The first is that they are busy with other cases, and the second is that the client is unreasonable. 

When you are hired as an attorney, you are required by most states’ ethics rules to keep your clients reasonably informed of the goings-on of their case.

Model Rule of Professional Conduct Rule 1.4 says:

(a) A lawyer shall:

  1. promptly inform the client of any decision or circumstance with respect to which the client’s informed consent, as defined in Rule 1.0(e), is required by these Rules;
  2. reasonably consult with the client about the means by which the client’s objectives are to be accomplished;
  3. keep the client reasonably informed about the status of the matter;
  4. promptly comply with reasonable requests for information; and
  5. consult with the client about any relevant limitation on the lawyer’s conduct when the lawyer knows that the client expects assistance not permitted by the Rules of Professional Conduct or other law.

(b) A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.

But what does the term “reasonably informed” actually mean”? The rule doesn’t provide a timeline as to what constitutes reasonable or prompt. Is prompt within 1 hour, 1 day, or 1 week?

We, as lawyers, know that the legal system is a slow-moving one.  Things do not usually happen overnight.  So we become busy (hopefully) with other cases and clients.  But this doesn’t mean that the first client isn’t still worried about what is happening in their case. So they will call with more information or with questions. Or they will call just to find out what the heck is going on!?

Even though there are ethics rules which require full communications with your client, let’s discuss the Rainmaking reasons and what you can do to make sure your client is happy.

Clients just want to be heard. 

That’s it. 

They want their questions answered (and sometimes the same questions more than once) and they want you to have empathy for what they are experiencing.  The more you are known as the attorney who is empathetic and responds quickly, the more clients will be referred to you. And, the opposite is quite true.  Many negative online reviews about attorneys usually say “he never returned my calls;” “She ignored my emails;” “I never knew what was going on.” 

I have, as have others, have used the following phrase with my clients many times: 

“People do business with people they know, like and trust.”

They also refer more business to people they know, like, and trust. So communicating with your clients is imperative.

You have to find a way to make sure that your clients feel heard and that you are responding to their needs.  But how to do this when you are beyond busy with other work?

At the very beginning of your representation with a new client there are items you need to address and you should ask your clients:

  • What method of communication do you prefer?  Some clients will prefer telephone calls and others will prefer emails (Please be careful of using the private messaging functions on social media to discuss cases with clients as there are other ethical considerations that must be respected).
  • How often do you need to be contacted?  The reason you are asking this question is that you are trying to determine what your client considers “reasonably informed.”

Armed with that information, now you can explain to them how you work.  You need to develop a communications system that describes how often you will be in contact with them as the case moves forward. Will you contact them weekly? Bi-monthly? Monthly?   You need to have an internal rule that you can communicate with your clients as to how quickly you will respond to them when they call or email. 

My rule, which is stated explicitly both on my email signature and in my voice mail message, is

“All correspondence and phone calls are returned within 24 hours during the business week (and usually a heck of a lot sooner).”

Now, I actually usually respond within a few hours – during the business week – but my business is different from yours.  You may need to reply more quickly.  But when you set your boundaries and explain them to your clients, most will understand.

By the way, this only applies to current clients.  You should absolutely respond to potential clients as quickly as possible or you may lose the opportunity, but that is another blog post for another day.

By setting boundaries and explaining them to your clients from the outset, you will find that you will have fewer complaints about your communication speeds and you will be satisfying their needs.

  • If you are a mid-level associate who would like to become a partner or a partner looking to become a Rainmaker and are interested in individual coaching but would like to take it for a test drive, schedule your Rock Star Rainmaker Training Trial Session.
  • If you are a law firm leader and would like to discuss bringing a training program or a Rainmaking Seminar (with Ethics CLEs) in-house please email me.

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