How to Treat Bad Clients

When you saw this post title, how did you react? Was your first thought: “Kick ’em to the curb” or “I wonder where this is going?” If it was the former, don’t feel bad – it’s my knee-jerk reaction too.

When we hear the words “bad client,” we instinctively cringe. It conjures up past experiences we would rather not relive. Frankly, nothing could be more unpleasant. So what should we do?

Remedies for bad clients

Want to weed out or eliminate bad clients? Nothing beats:

  1. Screening at intake;
  2. Controlling expectations; and
  3. Knowing when to say no.

Trouble is, most of us know these lessons.  So …

What if a bad client squeezes by?

If there is an irremediable breakdown in the lawyer-client relationship and withdrawal is viable, do it. At this stage, it isn’t going to get better. Yet, some lawyers refuse to do so.

Why would anyone hold on to a client who belittled and berated them? Denied that telephone conversations or email exchanges occurred? Refused to produce materials requested in discovery? Insisted the lawyer use unethical or illegal tactics? (All actual events that have happened to lawyers I know.)

Money is generally the explanation. The lawyer can’t afford to forego the fee (or jeopardize her job). There are other reasons too, like fear and intimidation.

I hope you never experience any of this. If you do, I hope you are strong enough to get out. If you want to talk it over with someone, consider calling one of the confidential attorney counselors at the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program (OAAP).

Is there another approach?

I was motivated to revisit this topic by blogger Celia Elwell. In a recent post, she took on lawyers and legal staff who retaliate against ill-tempered clients by putting the client’s work at the bottom of the stack. Since I’ve witnessed this too, I wanted to share this point made by Ms. Elwell:

Most people, as a rule, do not call an attorney’s office because they are having a good day. Before they became our clients, they realized they had a problem, tried to deal with it, were unsuccessful, stressed, and lost sleep. In short, we are not seeing them at their best.

Take good notes when your clients vent, rant, or repeat themselves. Because they are upset, they may be mistaken or confused. Let the client know that you are listening to them. Interrupt only when you need them to repeat something to make sure you get it right. Document the clients’ concerns, and tell your attorney they called and why.

While her remarks are directed toward staff, they are good reminders for us all.

If you didn’t spot it, notice I suggested above that withdrawal made sense if (a) it was viable and (b) there was an irremediable breakdown in the lawyer-client relationship.

What if you aren’t there yet? This is when Ms. Elwell’s advice comes in handy.

Do not under any circumstances intentionally retaliate by putting the client’s work at the bottom of the stack. At the least, it is unprofessional. It will also likely result in a bar complaint and/or legal malpractice claim. Instead, take the high ground:

  • Try to diagnose what went wrong. Is the client mad at you or someone else? Is the client mistaken or confused? Is this about money? How stressed is the client? Consider scheduling an in-person meeting to air out client concerns.
  • Go out of your way to be courteous and considerate. Instruct staff to do the same.
  • Do high quality work in a timely manner.

It’s easy to be resentful and decide that we’re going to give what we get. But if you go out of your way to appease the upset client, you remove all rational grounds for disputes, complaints, and claims. It’s better to remain professional, even if the “bad” client never appreciates it.

All Rights Reserved 2018 Beverly Michaelis

Postscript

For more tips on improving client relationships, check out this CLE:
7 Steps to Building Better Client Relationships.

 

Reduce Work Hours and Meet Your Goals

Is it really possible to reduce your work hours and still accomplish what you need to get done?

Absolutely!  If you’re willing to reform your habits and work routine.

A new year offers the opportunity to step back and take a fresh look at how to run your practice.  As someone who likes the idea of starting over and trying something new I am here to encourage you.  Please read on.

business-office

Are you in a rut?

It’s human nature to follow a routine. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  For example, following set procedures for responding to client email, docketing deadlines, or checking conflicts are helpful time management and malpractice avoidance techniques. The problem arises when we form work habits that are self-defeating or even life-threatening.

Working long hours can kill you

Several years ago I reported on a study from the Annals of Internal Medicine that found people “who work an average of 11 or more hours per day have a 67 percent higher risk of suffering a heart attack or dying from heart disease than people who work a standard seven- to eight-hour day.  Those who work between 10 and 11 hours per day have a 45 percent higher risk.”

For those of you who champion working hard and putting in long hours, these numbers are a sobering wakeup call.

Sitting is the new smoking

In 2016 came the admonition: get off your duff to improve your health.

While deadlines may sometimes dictate longer hours, sitting in your chair for 10 or 11 hours a day shouldn’t be the norm.  Long hours translate to physical stress, little or no time to exercise, and eating habits that are often less than stellar (like grabbing fast food on the way home.)

The truth is that none of us can maintain a “7-7-7 schedule” (7:00 am to 7:00 pm seven days a week) without suffering the consequences.  Even if you buy a treadmill or standing desk.

Resolve in 2018 to make changes

If I am describing you, stop.  You can do better, and you’ll be happier for it.  Here’s how to cut back the amount of time spent in the office and still accomplish what you need to get done.

Learn to say “goodbye” and “no.”

Two of my favorite words.  And they should be yours too.

Find it hard to turn people away?  I understand how you feel.  Lawyers face economic pressure: I don’t really have a choice.  I need the money.  And emotional pressure: Family, friends, or former clients are depending on me.  

Next time you want to say “no,” but are struggling, follow this simple advice.

Overwhelmed by the amount of work on your plate?

This is a good news/bad news scenario.

Let’s start with the “bad news” first.  You have too much to do and can’t get it done.  You may be paralyzed or depressed.  You don’t know where to start.  Call the attorney counselors at the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program (OAAP).  They provide free and confidential help with issues just like this.  They can also connect you to resources that can help relieve the pressure.

On the “good news” side, having too much to do means you can afford to be more picky about clients and cases.  Time to cull the herd:

What are your priorities?

What do you want to make a priority?  Create time that is sacrosanct to tackle what you want to get done by blocking out time on your calendar.  Treat this time as if it were a client appointment – take no calls, do not read email.  Stay off the Internet unless the task at hand involves being on the Internet.  Give the matter your undivided attention.

Multi-tasking is for the birds

Or rather, bird brains.  Literally.  It’s just about the worst thing you can try to do.

The idea that we can juggle ten things at once is a myth – we simply can’t do it.  Here is one of the better explanations I’ve read about why multi-tasking doesn’t work.  It was the inspiration for this post.  If you want to do something well, not start over ten times, remember it afterward, and get finished sooner, then single task!

You can control client expectations

Learn to shape and manage client expectations – from the very simple (availability by phone, ability to accommodate unscheduled appointments) to the more complex (meeting client deadlines).  The Professional Liability Fund (PLF) offers sample client brochures that explain office and billing practices.  Consider ordering the OSB-accredited webinar, Seven Steps to Building Better Client Relations.

Give yourself a break with this easy time management technique

Form a new habit for 2018.  Check your calendar first before making a time-related promise to a client.  If there is no “deadline” per se, determine when you can reasonably fit the project into your schedule.  You gain nothing by promising a quick turnaround if you can’t keep your word.

In a pickle? Triage!

If you’re in a pickle – a deadline is approaching and you know you can’t meet it – start triaging.  Call your client.  Call opposing counsel if necessary.  Negotiate a new due date.

I know facing up to deadlines is hard.  I also know many lawyers hesitate to call their clients or the other side because they fear being yelled at.  Know this: your clients and the other side are far more understanding than you give them credit for.  Everyone has been there.  They get it.  It turns out that waiting is not really that big of a problem ninety-nine percent of the time.  And if you need support making these kind of calls, just give a ring to the nice folks at the OAAP.

Get back in control

Getting help may be just the ticket to get your workflow back in control.  Consider temporary staff or a contract attorney.  Questions?  Call your friendly practice management advisor at the PLF for help.

Leaving early?  Good for you!

Last but not least, ditch the guilt of leaving early – it is your well-deserved reward for good planning and efficient work habits.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2018

Postscript

Have I given this advice before?  Absolutely.  But a reminder never hurts.  Especially if you know, as I do, that we all feel discouraged from time to time.  Never forget: you can start over and you can make a change.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Last Chance to Register for 7 Steps to Building Better Client Relationships

Last Call to Register for “7 Steps to Building Better Client Relationships”

Join me for a CLE on Wednesday, December 6, 2017 about how to cultivate your network, balance client expectations, proactively control social media content, meet client needs, and become more client-centric by exploring the 7 steps to building better client relationships:

  • Capturing better clients
  • Polishing communication skills
  • Advancing client service through technology and staff
  • Managing social media
  • Improving client satisfaction
  • Strengthening client retention
  • Renewing relationships

Topics include how to CYA the right way, how to say “no” gracefully, dos and don’ts when responding to negative online reviews, how to thank clients as part of your everyday, the simple six-step process to stay in touch, and why you should modernize fee arrangements and billing.

Date/Time/Location

Wednesday, December 6, 2017 from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Pacific Time. This is a live, online webinar.

Who Should Attend?

Lawyers, office administrators, or staff – anyone interested in building better client relationships.

Group Discounts

Discounts available to firms who wish to register 5 or more attendees. Contact organizer to arrange a discount code before registering: beverly@oregonlawpracticemanagement.org.

Does the Program Include Written Materials?

Yes. Written materials are distributed electronically with your registration confirmation.

Ask Questions/Live Polling

Questions are welcome during the live event. Attendees are also encouraged to participate in live, anonymous polling.

Registration Fee

$25 – Visit the Upcoming CLE page, click here, or choose the Register button below. Secure payment processing powered by Eventbrite. Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express accepted. Program materials included in the registration price.

Eventbrite - 7 Steps to Building Better Client Relationships

MCLE Credits
1.50 practical skills pending.

Can’t Attend?

Video and audio recordings of 7 Steps to Building Better Client Relationships will be available to download along with the program materials following the December 6 CLE. Price: $25. Contact me or visit my online CLE store after December 6.

All Rights Reserved [2017] Beverly Michaelis

The Continuum of Client Communication

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.

Avoidance, much?

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]

Postscript

For another twist on the subject of client communication, see Linn Davis, Good Communications: Keeping Clients and Ethical Obligations Satisfied.

Turn Over a New Leaf through Better Client Management

The New Year is an opportunity to do things differently.  Why not resolve to improve client management?

Lesson One

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.

Lesson Two

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.”
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

All Rights Reserved [2016] Beverly Michaelis