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.

 

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

Thanking Clients Should Be Part of Your Closing Ritual

When was the last time you thanked clients for their business?  Asked for their feedback?  Welcomed their referrals?  Invited them to call you with questions or concerns in other areas of your practice?

All of this can and should be part of your file closing ritual. The work may be done, but your client relationship doesn’t have to be.

Your closing letter should cover the essentials, show appreciation, and cross-market your services

  • Inform the client that work is now complete and your representation is over
  • Return original client documents
  • Establish responsibility for current or future tasks
  • Advise the client of your file retention and retrieval policies
  • Answer final questions
  • Thank the client for allowing you to be of service
  • Invite the client to subscribe to your blog, YouTube channel, or social media posts
  • Educate the client about your other areas of practice
  • Let the client know you welcome referrals (see below)
  • Ask the client for his or her feedback (see below)

Send out surveys

A well-designed client survey will give you insight about what you’re doing right and what needs improvement. Increase your chances of getting a timely response by delivering the survey in a format suited to the particular client: paper, fillable PDF, or online via Survey Monkey or a similar service. For a side-by-side comparison of online survey tools, see The Best Online Survey Tools of 2016 from PC Magazine.

Sample Survey Language

The ABC Law Firm is committed to providing high quality service to all of our clients.  To help us achieve that goal, we would like your feedback regarding our services.  Please let us know how we are doing by completing the survey below.  

New to the process?

If you’ve never done a client survey before, spend some time doing a little research. Here’s a great post by Sterling Miller with his patented “ten things” to consider when creating, distributing, and analyzing a client survey.

Like to see a survey in action? Check out this example. Still not clear on what you should ask in your survey? Here is a list of 27 questions to include from Lawyers Mutual. Sample client surveys are also available on the PLF Website.  From the home page, select Practice Management > Forms > Client Relations.

Invite clients back and welcome referrals

If you perceive this as “trolling” for work, I hope you change your mind.  Letting clients know about your other areas of practice or inviting their referrals is perfectly professional:

As you may know, ABC Law Firm provides business, real estate, and land use services to a wide variety of clients.  If you know of anyone in need of legal services, I hope you will keep us in mind. 

Again, I thank you for your business and appreciate the opportunity to work with you.  If I can be of any assistance to you in the future, please do not hesitate to call me at (phone number). 

Automate first, then personalize

Client closing letters are “one more thing to do” in a busy practice.  I get it.  But don’t let them slide: your clients need the information and you need the protection that written disengagement letters offer.

  • Make the process easier by creating forms or templates.
  • If you practice in an area where your clients often have numerous tasks to perform, consider moving those items to an attached checklist.  It will make your letter shorter and the process easier for the client to follow.
  • Start using a file closing checklist. It will remind you to send a closing letter and take you through all the other details that must be tended to when a client file is closed. You can find a sample on the PLF Website.  From the home page, select Practice Management > Forms > File Management.
  • When you are ready to close a file, bring up your boilerplate. Modify it in a two-step process. First, change the form as needed to fit the case. Second, and more critical to your relationship, take the time to personalize your parting words to the client.

Find time to send personalized closing letters by delegating routine file closing tasks to staff, such as reviewing the file for documents that should be added to the firm’s template directories, adding additional names from the file to your conflict system, or entering the file in your closed file inventory.

Make thanking clients part of your everyday

Small gestures can make a big difference in client relationships.  Don’t wait until it’s all over to say “thank you.”   Express appreciation often: after visiting a client’s office or facility, for any kindness the client shows, in your holiday greeting, as part of your open house invitation, or in recognition of a long-standing relationship.  Remember: getting and keeping good clients is substantially easier than courting new ones.

All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2017

Looking at Fees and Billing with a Fresh Eye

What if collection problems prevail across your entire clientele – not just a few accounts?  It may be time to turn a critical eye toward your current fee structure and billing practices:legal_document_istock_0

Switch to AFAs – Alternative Fee Arrangements

Combining flat and hourly or hourly and contingent fees may solve at least some of your cashflow problems. In litigation it’s easy to dismiss flat fees as unworkable: “I just can’t do it because the nature of the case is too unpredictable.”

Is this really true or is it an excuse not to change?

Let’s take dissolution.  I would expect nine out of ten lawyers to reject flat fees outright, but wait a minute.  Fees aren’t “all or nothing.”  More accurately, they’re anything you want them to be (almost). Therefore, it is perfectly doable in dissolution to flat fee at least the first stage of the case:  initial client interview, client follow-up, preparing and serving the petition, initial mandatory discovery.  Go hourly thereafter, but look for other opportunities (stages/discrete tasks) where you can propose flat fees.  In short, be more flexible.  Done right, an AFA could mean collecting a flat fee up front for the initial stage of the case with a requirement for an evergreen retainer once hourly billing kicks in.

Do a Better Job of Educating Clients

As I’ve noted before, many a collection problem can be traced back to the initial client interview when the lawyer failed to adequately discuss billing practices. If you don’t have an honest, open discussion about fees, costs, and billing practices, reform now!

  • Reinforce what you tell the client by using billing brochures enclosed with your fee agreement.
  • Or if you don’t like the brochure idea, attach a one page bullet list of your billing procedures.
  • Prefer to be paperless?  Send clients to a private web page that serves the same purpose. Consider requiring clients to read and accept your web-based billing procedures before eSigning your fee agreement.

Why am I suggesting brochures, lists, and web pages?  The brutal truth is that even the shortest fee agreement is probably too long for the average client to digest.  But we can make billing more understandable!

When you separate and reformat billing details using brochures or bulleted lists you improve readability.  [Much like what I did in the preceding paragraphs.]  Improving readability increases comprehension and understanding.  If you go the Web page route, use the same or similar formatting techniques.

Change How You’re Paid

It’s hard to imagine a law firm that doesn’t accept credit cards, but I know you’re out there.  If you’re part of this group, and you’re also experiencing collection problems, start taking credit cards.  Yes, there are a few things you need to know – for example – how to pick a merchant to process payments and what to do about merchant fees (aka credit card surcharges or transaction fees).  But I’ve got your back.  Read the hyperlinked posts included above and you’ll get the answers you need.

Not convinced? Statistics reveal that 43% of consumers prefer to pay by debit card, 35% with a credit card.  Granted, legal fees are not a typical consumer purchase, but still: why would you disregard what many consider a preferable payment method?

Credit cards can be an ideal solution for collecting flat fees earned upon receipt or the cost of an initial consultation.  Many a family law lawyer has shared that clients would not be able to afford their services without the ability to put their bill on a credit card…

Be More Like Bugs Bunny

Yes, this is the carrot/stick metaphor.  It’s this simple: discounts are a client motivator.  If you want to collect a retainer, up-front fee, or take care of an outstanding balance give the client a financial incentive to pay you.

Here are some examples:

  • Your rate is $250 per hour if the client is invoiced, but if the client establishes a retainer, your rate is reduced to $200 per hour.  [Establishing a retainer triggers the lower hourly rate.]
  • You offer preparation of a complete estate plan at $2,500, due and payable upon completion.  If the client is willing to pay up front before work begins, your flat fee is reduced to $2,000.  [The earned upon receipt fee triggers a $500 savings to the client in return for being paid now.  Remember to comply with earned upon receipt payment rules and get your fee agreement in writing.]
  • You offer 10% off your bill if the client remits payment within 10 days (instead of the usual 30 or more).  [Your early payment discount saves the client money and allows you to collect the outstanding receivable in one-third the usual time.]

There is no magic wand in collections, but a willingness to start over and shake things up can make a difference.

All Rights Reserved – Beverly Michaelis – 2017.