We communicate with clients along a continuum – using emails, texts, letters, phone calls, video conferences, and in-person meetings. When selecting a communication medium, what drives your choice?
When Your Convenience Determines How You Communicate
Choosing a communication medium that is most convenient for you is understandable. Odds are you’re busy, maybe overwhelmed. You have information to convey and want to pass it along to the client quickly and easily. More likely than not, you’ll fire off an email, maybe a text, or post a document and notify the client to login to your secure client portal.
- This is perfectly fine if the information you have to convey is cut and dried: not controversial, unexpected, upsetting, or likely to provoke a series of questions.
- For best results, prime clients at the first client meeting. Let them know to expect emails, texts, etc. when you have routine information to convey.
When Client Convenience Rules Communication
Some might argue this should be the gold standard 100% of the time: choose the communication method the client prefers or finds most convenient.
While I understand the spirit behind this point of view, it ignores some important realities. Consider this typical scenario: Client sends you a question by email or text, but is unclear in what she is asking or leaves out key details. In the name of letting the client control the means of communication, you can:
- Begin an inefficient exchange of messages in an attempt to clarify the question.
- Spend an inordinate amount of time “issue spotting,” then answer every conceivable variation of the client’s real question.
Have I made this mistake? Yes, indeed. But the goal here is to do better. Neither of these choices is a good way to go.
- Client convenience/preference can rule when you have straightforward information to convey. [Spot a theme here?]
- If the client is being murky, don’t text or email. Pick up the phone. You’ll get to bottom of the real question far more quickly. Send back a quick message: “Let me call you to discuss this. Is 2:00 p.m. a good time?”
Purposely Choosing a Communication Method that is Inconvenient for the Client
If we’re being truthful, most lawyers have done this at one time or the other. You leave a voicemail at home because you know the client is at work. You send an email late at night when the client is likely to be sleeping. You mail a letter instead of picking up the phone to talk.
If you occasionally choose a means of communication that avoids contact with your clients, don’t worry about it. You might legitimately go this route to simply get something done. [Your convenience is driving how you communicate.]
But if you find yourself avoiding clients (plural) repeatedly (chronically), stop and reflect. Most lawyers who choose an “avoidance” means of communication are doing it because:
- They anticipate the client will be unhappy about whatever information it is they have to convey – or –
- The client is already unhappy [which could be reasonable or unreasonable]
Chronic avoidance can become chronic procrastination, which is a no-win for everyone. Lawyers who repeatedly procrastinate are anxious, stressed, and sometimes depressed. They find it impossible to break the self-perpetuating cycle of avoidance: as clients become more and more unhappy because the lawyer isn’t communicating, the lawyer retreats even more – not checking email, not opening postal mail, allowing voicemail to fill up, not reading texts.
If you see yourself going down this path, or if you are looking for resources and advice on how to communicate bad news to clients, help is only a phone call away. Contact the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program. Assistance is free, confidential, and non-judgmental. Outside Oregon? There are national hotlines and lawyer assistance programs in other states.
Communicating in a Way that Builds and Supports Client Relationships
At the risk of revealing my bias, this is the sweet spot where you should strive to be. So before talking on the phone really does become a lost art, try to cultivate a “relationship” approach when you communicate. Follow these guidelines:
- Talk about communication at your initial client meeting. Let the client know what to expect and set the tone.
- My goal is to keep you informed at all times during your case. I will email (upload) routine updates and documents.
- If you have a question, feel free to call (text, or email) me. I set aside (mornings) (afternoons) to return calls and messages.
- If the answer to your question is complicated, or if I need more information to give you an answer, I may ask to set up a telephone or video conference.
- I like to meet with clients in person to (talk about settlement offers, prepare for deposition, prepare for trial, etc.) If you want to meet in person, feel free to (call my assistant or me) any time to set up an appointment.
- You are welcome to drop off documents (any time, after 1:00 p.m.). If you want to talk (leave me a note or speak to my assistant so we can schedule a time to meet).
- Consider the information you need to convey and remember your goal in communicating: you’re trying to build and support a better client relationship.
- Convey bad news in person, by video conference, or over the phone.
- Discussing something complicated? Use the same approach.
- Is your client prone to anxiety? Do you anticipate the client will have a host of questions? Ditto on the approach.
Potential Legal Malpractice
If you’re an Oregon lawyer, call the Professional Liability Fund at 1-800-452-1639 and ask to speak to an on-call claims attorney in any of the following circumstances:
- You believe you committed malpractice
- The client is threatening to sue or is asserting you malpracticed
- You are served with a summons and complaint
Firing a Troublesome Client
Sometimes the communication issue really boils down to the fact that you need to fire your client. Read more about firing clients here. Carefully review “Withdrawal from Litigation: Client Confidences,” OSB Formal Opinion 2011-185, Scott Morrill, Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: How to End a Relationship, Part II, and Helen Hierschbiel, Tying Up Loose Ends: How to End a Relationship.
[All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis]
For another twist on the subject of client communication, see Linn Davis, Good Communications: Keeping Clients and Ethical Obligations Satisfied.