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.

Coping with Mistakes

Mistakes happen.  The practice of law is complex, clients don’t always follow through as directed, and sometimes we commit errors.

The emotion of being caught up in a legal malpractice claim can be overwhelming:

A significant measure of a person is not whether he or she avoids trouble, but how he or she meets it when they find each other…. I have developed immense respect for many of our covered parties, not because of their perfection as lawyers (they weren’t perfect), but because of how they coped with the claim.
Bruce Schafer, PLF Director of Claims – Parting Thoughts: Lawyers are like other people.

Help is here if you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed

Take this advice from the Professional Liability Fund:

We recognize that having a legal malpractice claim filed against you is often very upsetting. Lawyers react in many different ways, including anger, loss of confidence, anxiety, avoidance, and inability to focus.  If you would like assistance coping with the stress or other challenges associated with a legal malpractice claim, the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program offers free and confidential support and assistance. Information you provide to OAAP Attorney Counselors is not shared with the PLF Claims staff, your defense counsel, or any other person. In fact, no information is disclosed to any person, agency, or organization outside the OAAP without your consent. For free and completely confidential assistance call 503.226.1057 or 1.800.321.6227 (OAAP).  NOTE:  We ask that you do not discuss the facts or merits of the case with anyone other than the PLF, defense counsel, or others with whom you maintain a legally confidential relationship.

Putting claims into context

One of the most important roles we fulfill at the PLF or OAAP is helping you put a claim in context:

  • You are not alone.  The PLF receives approximately one claim for every nine lawyers it covers.  More than 80% of lawyers in practice 20 years or more have had a claim.
  • Having a strong reaction to an allegation of malpractice is very common.
  • There is never a downside to contacting the PLF or OAAP.  Our services are confidential and we are here to help.
  • The PLF has two claims attorneys on call every day to talk to Oregon lawyers. You should contact the PLF if you are served with a summons and/or complaint; you are concerned that you may have made a mistake; a client indicates that you have made a mistake; someone threatens you with a claim or makes a demand for damages against you; you receive a subpoena, or someone requests information, documentation, and/or testimony about your representation of a client.  Call the PLF even if you are concerned that the claim may not be covered.
  • At least one Attorney Counselor is on call daily at the OAAP office.  The OAAP is available to assist with any issue that affects the ability of a lawyer to function effectively.
  • The PLF has four practice management advisors on staff who are available to help you take action and constructively move forward with office system improvements.

All Rights Reserved [2015] Beverly Michaelis

 

Malpractice Claim Trends in Oregon [Infographic]

The 2013 Professional Liability Fund Annual Report is now available for Oregon lawyers on the PLF Web site.  The report reveals the following legal malpractice claim trends and data:

Number of claimsAverage Cost Per ClaimFrequency of Claims by Area of LawCost of Claims by Area of Law

 

 

Common Malpractice Traps in a PI Practice

10-16-2013 12-37-48 PMPersonal injury generates the most frequent and costly legal malpractice claims in Oregon.

If you are a PI practitioner, watch out for these common traps:

Naming the Wrong Defendant
A thorough investigation of your client’s claim is essential.  Seek out corroborating documentation of the facts.  Take special care to properly identify parties – especially when using the
Business Registry to search for an assumed business name or corporate entity. (Many names are similar.) File your complaint well before the statute expires.  If you later discover that you misidentified the defendant, you should be able to file an amended complaint.

Omitting a Defendant
Even if you believe that you conducted a thorough pre-filing investigation of your client’s claim, it is still possible to miss a defendant.  Here is an example:  Your client is crossing the street and is struck by a car in the cross walk.  In working up your client’s claim, you instruct your investigator to interview the driver who is not represented.  Based on the statement taken by your investigator, the case appears straightforward:  pedestrian versus driver.  You file suit, naming the driver.  In the course of depositions, after the statute of limitations has run, you discover the driver was performing a work-related errand for her employer at the time of the collision.  You failed to name the employer as an additional defendant.  There are several lessons to learn from this scenario.  One of the most important is to file early!  If you learn of a second defendant before the statute runs, file an amended complaint.  Also take the time to review scenarios like this with your investigator and be sure he or she has adequate direction from you on how to conduct interviews.

Suing a Defendant who is Deceased
Failure to discover that the defendant passed away does not toll the statute of limitations.  Conduct a records search prior to filing.  Use resources like the
Oregon Judicial Information Network (OJIN) or Accurint to check court and public records.  If a probate estate has been established, name the estate as the defendant and serve the Personal Representative.

Not Knowing the Law
Claims involving minors often trip up practitioners.  Many believe that minority automatically tolls all statutes and tort claim filings until the minor reaches the age of 18.  This is not the case.  Do your research!  Use the
PLF’s Oregon Statutory Time Limitations handbook as a resource to verify the applicable deadline.  Every Oregon lawyer received a copy of this handbook in 2010.  A PDF of the book is available for download on the PLF Web site.

Missing the Statute of Limitations
The first defense in avoiding a blown statute is to know the law.  As suggested above, use the
PLF’s Oregon Statutory Time Limitations handbook as a resource.  Even if you think you know the statute of limitations, check again.  The second defense is to establish reliable calendaring and file tickling systems that remind you of upcoming deadlines and prompt you to move cases forward.  Consult the PLF’s docketing and calendaring practice aids available online or download and review our book, A Guide to Setting Up and Running Your Law Office, also available online.  Third, always file well in advance of the statute.  Am I beginning to sound like a broken record?  Filing early allows time to recover from the mistakes described above.

Failing to Timely Complete Service
Put the summons and complaint in the hands of your process server on the day you file your complaint or as soon thereafter as possible.  Create a reminder or task to follow-up with your process server 10 days later.  If the defendant is avoiding service or if your server is having difficulty locating the defendant, you need to know early on so you can pursue alternate service methods.  If the defendant is not personally served, be sure you comply with any additional steps that must be taken.  For example, if substituted or office service is obtained, follow-up service by first class mail is required.  Lastly, remember that ALL service steps, including mailings, must be completed within Oregon’s 60 day window for service of process.

Other Resources for Personal Injury Practitioners
The PLF offers 19 litigation/personal injury forms on our Web site, including a civil litigation checklist, service of process checklist, common civil litigation time limitations, and a settlement/judgment disbursal checklist.  We also have many articles dedicated to helping PI practitioners avoid potential malpractice.  An archive of PLF In Brief articles dating back to the year 2000 is available on the PLF Web site.  Additionally, in May 2013 we held Malpractice Traps for Lawyers Handling Personal Injury Cases.  This CLE and the accompanying handout are available to order on the PLF Web site.

Call the PLF for Help 1-800-452-1639
If any of the above happens to you, or if you are concerned for any reason that you may have committed malpractice, call our office.  Ask to speak to one of the claims attorneys on call. 

If you would like assistance with setting up a reliable calendaring or file tickling system, ask to speak to a PLF practice management advisor. 

All PLF services are confidential.

All Rights Reserved – Beverly Michaelis [2013]

Coping with the Stress of a Legal Malpractice Claim

A significant measure of a person is not whether he or she avoids trouble, but how he or she meets it when they find each other.  Bruce Schafer

I couldn’t agree more.

In this month’s Parting Thoughts Bruce Schafer, our Director of Claims, shares some important advice on how to handle the emotional effects of a legal malpractice claim.  Here is an excerpt:

Stress and professional liability claims go hand-in-hand; stress is either a cause of the claim or a product of the claim. For persons living on the edge or sinking into the abyss of depression, substance abuse, financial ruin or other personal chaos, the claim is usually a product of what is going on outside of the office, and the claim may be the least of the covered party’s problems. On the other hand, many a high-functioning, conscientious lawyer is affected by either his or her error or the accusation of malpractice or wrong-doing. In this scenario, the claim triggers the stress or distress, which can range from mild to severe, depending upon the makeup of the lawyer, the nature and magnitude of the claim and the lawyer’s support system (or lack thereof).

Many lawyers’ emotional responses to claims evolve during the life of the claim. The initial reaction may be anger, denial, shame or fear. As the lawyer “gets used to” the process, those feelings may become less acute and the lawyer is more able to objectively deal with the claim. The experienced claims attorneys at the PLF and defense counsel (where retained) are able to reassure the covered party and convey the sense the claim can be managed. The reasonable goal is to manage and cope with the stress generated by a professional liability claim. It is difficult to completely eliminate it. Motivated, conscientious professionals care; that is to be expected and respected.

From my experience, the first claim is the one most likely to affect the lawyer. The claim symbolizes imperfection, which can then initially be elevated to feelings of general incompetence. Perhaps the lawyer has been judgmental of other lawyers who made mistakes; now she judges herself just as harshly. The “first-timer’s” anxiety is also fueled by fear of failure and of the financial, reputational and existential consequences. Will I get through this? Well, by and large, they do get through it. Subsequent claims, although not welcomed, are at least less fearsome.

A significant measure of a person is not whether he or she avoids trouble, but how he or she meets it when they find each other. I have been impressed with how brave most of our covered parties are when faced with a claim. Notwithstanding the unpleasantness or threat of facing accusations of incompetence or worse, with the range of potential adverse consequences, most of our covered parties continue to function professionally and meaningfully participate in their defense and “make it through.” Bravery involves overcoming fear or surviving a difficult experience. Among the bravest are those lawyers whose cases go to a jury trial. While the plaintiff is presenting its case, the covered party has to sit and listen to opening statements, plaintiff’s story and expert witnesses’ criticisms of the covered party’s conduct. In some cases, the prayer exceeds the coverage. I have developed immense respect for many of our covered parties, not because of their perfection as lawyers (they weren’t perfect), but because of how they coped with the claim.

As I have observed in the crucible of professional liability claims, the above are just a few examples of how lawyers are no different from other people. They fear failure. They desire approval and respect. Some feel unjustly accused, and some are. Many make obvious mistakes that cause little or no harm. Others commit small errors that cause a lot of harm. Some want to apologize or compensate to make it right. Others want to fight. For most, the experience is unpleasant, but they get through it. Most meet the challenge with their integrity, decency and careers intact. Not only do they survive the experience, but they earn our respect by how they cope.

The full article is posted here.