Ask Attorney Jennifer B.: Empathy is Key to the Attorney-Client Relationship
February is the month of love, and lawyers should always show love and appreciation for their clients. See my earlier blog post on this subject. After all, without them, and without the attorney-client relationship, or clients in general, there would be no work. Lawyers would be idle.
Like all close relationships, however, there are times when things can become a bit rocky. It is important to handle these situations with sensitivity and care, and to remember how much our clients mean to us and how they should be valued. Below are some strategies to remedy these tough situations and to get back to showing clients the love they deserve:
Don’t Promise What You Can’t Deliver
Sometimes it happens as early as the initial meeting, and sometimes it occurs during the course of the representation. The lawyer is eager to secure and keep the client, but they come to realize that what the client needs or wants is not what the lawyer can deliver. For example, the client’s matter is beyond the lawyer’s realm of experience, or the time the client will require is more than the lawyer can devote.
By taking on the case, or not getting the proper assistance to fulfill the client’s needs, the attorney is setting the client up for disappointment. Rather than to pretend you can do it all or ignore the problem, it is better to be direct with the client and explain what you can offer, what you cannot and, if necessary, to bring on the additional resources to properly service the matter. The client will appreciate your honesty and willingness to do what is needed to address their situation.
Learn to Work With Clients, Not Against Them
Lawyers, by nature, can be pretty opinionated and forceful. As advocates, lawyers are trained to be strong-minded. In some instances, though, these positive courtroom traits interfere with the lawyer’s ability to really listen to clients and understand what they are truly seeking by way of an outcome.
Sometimes the lawyer gets offended when a client rejects the course of action that the lawyer thinks is best. When this happens, the lawyer needs to step back, swallow their pride and need to be “right” and rather try to understand what it is that the client ultimately wants and needs.
From there, the lawyer’s job is to counsel them as to the possible results based on the lawyer’s knowledge and experience and to make recommendations as to what would be the best course of action. Ultimately, though, the lawyer needs to work with the client to come up with a plan that is right for the client.
Give Clients the Attention They Need
Some clients have higher expectations than others. The lawyer’s job is to understand and work with the client to make their experience as positive as possible. When clients tend to be more demanding in terms of time, some lawyers experience frustration and thus, a tendency to try to avoid the client.
This is the opposite of what should be done. In fact, it is better to acknowledge the client even if the lawyer is unable to attend to them immediately. The client will have the peace of mind knowing that they have been heard, and the lawyer can reduce their stress and have the breathing room to deal with immediate issues and then give the client the undivided attention they deserve.
Sometimes, it is more difficult to address the needs of clients who are not so demanding and a bit more passive. These clients may be overlooked when the lawyer is busy, but they deserve as much attention as the more vocal clients. Thus, it is important to take the lead and check in on them to make sure that their needs are being properly addressed and their cases appropriately managed.
Address the Payment
Money is the root of many relationship problems, and it can also negatively affect the lawyer’s relationship with their client. When a client doesn’t pay in accordance with the terms the lawyer deems acceptable but is demanding more and more work, the lawyer builds resentment which makes for a disastrous lawyer/client relationship.
To avoid this issue, address money at the outset. Be clear about expectations regarding payment. For example, if the lawyer expects the client to maintain evergreen retainers or pay upon presentment of the invoice, this should be explicitly stated at the initial meeting and explain it in the engagement letter. The client will appreciate knowing what is expected of them and thus, they are more likely to fulfill that expectation.
Similarly, it is important to discuss with the client the cost/benefit of any suggested course of action. While many lawyers don’t want to talk about money up front, it is better that a client understands the potential costs before they are incurred rather than being surprised by a large bill after the work has already been done.
The bottom line in all of this is that lawyers need their clients more than the clients need them. Once we keep in mind, how important it is to value our clients and our relationship with them, we will be able to successfully navigate any bumps in the road that may occur.