Be Brave! Ask Clients How You’re Doing

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Client Relations Dos and Don’ts

The best defense against a legal malpractice claim is establishing and maintaining a good working relationship with your clients.  Follow these client relations dos and don’ts from the PLF:

DO treat your client with courtesy by:

  1. Keeping appointments promptly.
  2. Returning telephone calls, or having staff call to explain any delay.
  3. Completing work as promised, or letting the client know why if it cannot be done.  Do not force your client to repeatedly nag to get something done.
  4. Keeping the client informed of the progress of his or her case by sending copies of pleadings, correspondence, etc., as well as occasional status reports.

DON’T create unreasonable expectations.  Assess your client’s case realistically and present it to the client that way.

DO explain clearly, and confirm in writing, exactly what your legal services will consist of and exactly how the fee will be determined.  Carefully confirm in writing any legal matters you are not going to handle, and if the client or another professional is going to do a portion of the work.  Provide specific written details to avoid misunderstandings.

DO comply with ORPC 1.4, which states:  (a)  “A lawyer shall keep a client reasonably informed about the status of a matter and promptly comply with reasonable requests for information.  (b)  A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.”

DO use a written fee agreement and/or engagement letter for all client matters.

DO comply with Exclusion 8 of the PLF Coverage Plan relating to business transactions with clients. See the Disclosure Form ORPC 1: “Lawyer Engages in Business Transaction with Client” on the PLF Web site.  Select Practice Aids and Forms, then Conflicts of Interest. 

DON’T sue your client for a fee without first attempting to arbitrate the fee dispute through the Oregon State Bar Fee Arbitration Program.

DO confirm all advice in writing, particularly if the client chooses not to follow your advice.  Explain alternatives and their ramifications, and then let your client decide.

DON’T take any material action which may prejudice your client, settle a case, agree to judgment, or dismiss a party, etc., without the express consent of your client.

DON’T lose the human touch.  Treat all clients with empathy and practice good listening skills.  Often the most important client need you can meet is the need to be heard and understood. If you are struggling with a difficult client, contact the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program (OAAP) for confidential advice at (503) 226-1057 or (800) 321-6227.

DO take measures to produce a professional work product.  Work closely with staff to ensure that all documents, pleadings, correspondence, and client bills are accurate and error-free.

DO contact the PLF for advice if a claim or potential claim for malpractice develops.

Smartphone Email Signatures

Does your standard e-mail signature include a disclaimer?  Perhaps the IRS Circular 230 Disclosure:

To ensure compliance with requirements imposed by the IRS, we inform you that any U.S. federal tax advice contained in this communication (including any attachments) is not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, for the purpose of (i) avoiding penalties under the Internal Revenue Code or (ii) promoting, marketing or recommending to another party any transaction or matter addressed herein.

Or maybe yours seeks to protect confidentiality and the attorney-client privilege:

This message may contain sensitive and private privileged information.  If you are not the intended recipient, or if you believe you have received this message in error, please notify me immediately by reply e-mail.  Please keep the contents confidential and delete the message and any attachments from your system.

Whether such disclaimers work is a debate for another day.  For the purpose of today’s post, let’s assume they do and you want to include a disclaimer in your e-mail signature.  Easy enough – when you are working on your desktop or laptop – but long e-mail signatures are not supported by mobile devices like the iPhone.  What can users do?

One option is to post the e-mail communication policy/disclaimer on your firm’s Web site.  If your device will support a signature that contains an outside link, problem solved.  Here is an example:

This can be done on the iPhone using an app like the Signature Creator Tool that supports HTML signatures with URLs.

If that sounds like too much work, another choice would be to include appropriate disclaimers in the client’s initial fee agreement so the client understands up front that all communication by e-mail is subject to the conditions contained in the initial disclaimer.  In that case, if an attorney preferred, his or her mobile e-mail signature could look like this:

 

If you are beyond the initial fee agreement stage and don’t want to hassle with special apps that support HTML signatures with URLs, then do a mass paper mailing or mass e-mail to all clients including a copy of the firm’s disclaimer and e-mail communication policy.  Explain to clients that your policies and disclaimer apply to all messages, whether sent by tablet, smartphone, desktop, laptop, or some future means yet to be invented.  If you are particularly concerned, ask clients to acknowledge and consent to your terms.  This can be done by signing and returning the policy/disclaimer or by replying to your e-mail blast.  (If you send a group or broadcast e-mail to all clients, be sure to put addresses in the bcc: field).

Copyright 2012 Beverly Michaelis