The New Year is an opportunity to do things differently. Why not resolve to improve client management?
The first lesson in managing client expectations is that some folks should never become your clients. Become a “red flag” spotter. Screen potential new clients with these questions in mind:
- Who referred the new client? The quality of the referral source can speak volumes (best client ever: you’ve got another winner; client from hell: run for the hills).
- Are you taking the case because the new client is a friend or family member? If this is the only reason, it isn’t good enough.
- Are you overlooking a potential conflict? Be especially wary when representing multiple clients, who are almost never equally situated (though they may argue with you).
- Is the client lawyer shopping? If you are the third lawyer the client has consulted, one or more of the following is likely to be true: the client has no case or a bad case; the client is perpetually dissatisfied; the client doesn’t have any money; the client is purposely trying to conflict you out of representing the opposing party.
- Does the client have a bad attitude toward lawyers or other professionals? Proceed cautiously if the client’s feelings seem disproportionate. A client who sees conspiracies around every corner can quickly become a nightmare for you.
- Is the client pursuing the matter on principle without regard to cost? Unfortunately, proceeding on “principle” is sometimes a masquerade for vindictiveness or revenge. A client who seems to be pressing on this point a bit too much won’t be very amenable to settlement and may not be willing to cooperate on simple tasks like scheduling depositions or cooperating with discovery requests. This client’s motive is to push the other side’s buttons with the side effect of irritating you.
- And the list goes on. Learn all the red flags.
The second lesson in managing client expectations is to think about your practice from the client’s point of view. Perfectly good clients with decent cases can turn into clients from hell if they feel their expectations aren’t being met. Avoid this trap:
- Be realistic about potential results. Depositions, discovery, and your own investigation may reveal that your client’s “perfect case” isn’t so perfect after all. It is better to be a bit conservative than to give clients false hope.
- Provide accurate timelines. This is easier for transactional lawyers than litigators. Television and movies make it appear that conflicts can be resolved in one, two or three hours, leading clients to believe their case will be a sprint to the finish. Prepare your clients for a marathon.
- Talk about fees and costs up front. Money will be on the client’s mind, so address it early. Whatever arrangement you make, be sure the client understands exactly what is required of them. If you bill hourly and provide the client with an estimate or budget, keep a close eye on the numbers. If it becomes obvious to you that the work can’t be finished for the specified amount, speak up right away. Always stick to your billing schedule and get invoices out on a timely basis so clients know where they stand financially.
- Establish turnaround times for phone calls and emails. The best approach is to set aside a specific time of day to return calls and reply to messages. If your schedule allows, you can do this more than once per day. For example, upon arriving at the office, around lunch time, and again at the end of the day. If you are a busy trial lawyer running a solo practice, it may be more reasonable to inform clients that you will respond within 48 business hours to calls or emails. By letting clients know when to receive a response, you manage their expectation that all communications are “instant.”
- Inform clients about extended absences. If a trial or other commitment is going to keep you out of the office for an extended period, change your outgoing voicemail message and consider sending an email blast so clients are prepared.
- Use staff effectively. Some lawyers postpone hiring an assistant because they believe they can’t afford staff. In turn, these same lawyers spend valuable billable hours performing clerical tasks. Before you write off the idea of hiring someone, do the math. Odds are the billable time you recoup from delegating nonbillable tasks to a full or part-time staffer will more than pay for your employee. Staff can help you respond to the barrage of emails, phone calls, and client requests while keeping an eye on deadlines and getting work product out the door. Improving responsiveness and timeliness makes for happier clients.
- Keep clients informed by transmitting all incoming and outgoing work product. Clients want tangible results, but we work in a business where there isn’t much to “show” that clients can put their hands on. Documents are an exception. Keep them flowing.
- Review all open files at least once in any 30 day period. Your best option to is create a recurring task or reminder in your calendar or practice management software for each file. When a new file is opened, part of your file opening procedure should include setting a revolving reminder or tickler to review the new file. If you don’t have tickle dates for each of your existing files, generate a client list and begin scheduling recurring 30 day reminders for each file. Try to spread the file review process over the entire month so you aren’t overwhelmed on any one day. Creating a reminder or tickler system means you are less likely to forget about files. Use monthly reminders as a starting place for delegation and as a prompt to contact clients with a status report. When you stay on top of your files and provide regular status updates, clients feel like you are engaged, involved, and care about their case.
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