Ask Attorney Jennifer B.: Developing Meaningful Client Relationships
The lawyer-client relationship typically develops out of a need. The client has a problem, and the lawyer is tasked with solving it. When starting this relationship, there is a certain amount of unease and perhaps even a lack of trust like any endeavor into the unknown. The client may be concerned, for example, that the lawyer will not get them the result they desire, or may cost too much in the process. The lawyer may have similar concerns – they want to be able to fulfill the client’s need so the client will be satisfied and may be unsure about their ability to do so, and they may be concerned about getting paid for their services.
Yet, once the initial anxiety dissipates and the lawyer and client start working together, there is an opportunity not only for a successful outcome for both, but also for this business relationship to develop into something more meaningful to the lawyer and the client. Why does this matter? From the client’s perspective, developing a meaningful relationship with their lawyer gives them a sense of trust and security. The lawyer is not merely a one-time problem-solver. He or she becomes a true counselor, that is, someone that the client can trust to give sound advice in many situations. This is also valuable to the lawyer because even if the client is seeking the lawyer’s assistance for one specific problem, having a meaningful relationship with the lawyer means the client may return for assistance with other issues and from a pure business perspective, is also more likely to refer other potential matters and clients to the lawyer.
Understanding the importance of having a meaningful lawyer-client relationship is one thing, developing it is another. It is certainly not something that happens overnight. Moreover the length of the relationship itself does not make it is meaningful. Even if a relationship is longstanding, it can still remain superficial. Rather, a meaningful lawyer-client relationship starts like any other meaningful relationship – with trust and mutual respect.
Open and candid communication is the best way to develop trust between the lawyer and client. The lawyer needs to be honest and open with the client and advise the client of both the positive and negative aspects of their case and the various possibilities that could result. Being realistic breeds trust. Promising the client what the lawyer cannot deliver only sets the client up for disappointment and results in lack of trust on the client’s part. The client also has a role in this. To best represent the client’s interests, the client must confide in the lawyer and tell them everything about their matter, both good and bad.
Bringing a team approach to the lawyer-client relationship also helps in making it meaningful. Many lawyers think that if they take charge of the matter, leaving the client with little or no say in how the case is handled, this will impress the client and make the lawyer more valuable to them. Clients also sometimes believe that they cannot question or challenge the lawyer on the case because the lawyer must know best. That is why they are being paid a big fee. Sometimes, with this mentality, the client ends up resenting the lawyer and feeling disappointed with the case outcome because it is different than what they wanted or expected.
When a team approach is utilized, the lawyer and the client work together. The lawyer uses his or her expertise to provide the client with an overall plan of how they see the case developing. This includes advising the client of other staff members or lawyers who may play a role in the case and the cost/benefit of proceeding with one course of action versus another. The client is also a part of this “team”, feeling free to ask questions that are answered, and expressing what they would like to achieve in terms of goals. Working together for a common purpose puts the lawyer and client on a level playing field, which makes the relationship meaningful and not one of dominance and subservience.
Most importantly, developing mutual respect between the lawyer and client leads to a meaningful relationship. Respect can be gained by the aforementioned factors such as open communication and teamwork. Fairness in dealing with each other also leads to mutual respect. For the lawyer, this means charging fairly and developing strategies that are truly best for the client both from an outcome and cost driven perspective. The client will come to appreciate and trust that the lawyer is really looking out for what is best for the client. For the client, respect for the lawyer means paying bills in a timely fashion and being reasonable with expectations. No one lawyer is a miracle worker who can change the world, but hopefully the lawyer can help the client solve the problem at hand in the best way as reasonably possible.
One of the best aspects of practicing law is to develop those relationships with clients that become long-standing and meaningful. This gives purpose to what we do and makes all the struggles worthwhile. After all, most of us who decided to pursue this profession did so with the idea of helping others and having clients who truly rely on us for our counsel. This is why meaningful relationships do matter.