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.

The Ups and Downs of Staffing Your Law Firm

If your practice is growing and you have more work than you can reasonably handle, it may be time to hire staff.  Oddly, what seems like a natural progression can also be stressful.  Among other things, you may be wondering:

  • Can I really afford to hire someone?
  • Should this person be a contractor or an employee?
  • How can I best use my staff person?
  • What issues do I need to be aware of when hiring?
  • What if I have to fire my employee?

Let’s tackle these one at a time.

Can I afford to hire someone?

More often than not, the answer is a resounding yes!

  • The typical Oregon lawyer can net a profit of $91 every time his or her highly paid paralegal bills one hour of time to a client.
  • If a highly paid paralegal bills just under 13 hours during the course of a 40 hour week, the lawyer paying the paralegal will break even.
  • If the same paralegal bills 15 hours per week for the entire month, the lawyer will earn a profit of $1,260.84 after the paralegal’s salary and benefits are paid.
  • In the meanwhile, the lawyer has successfully shifted 60 hours of billable work and approximately 100 hours of nonbillable work to an employee: paper filing, efiling, scanning documents, calendaring, running conflict checks, billing clients, banking, running errands, opening files, closing files, and answering the phone.

See this post for the details and mathematical breakdown.

Should this person be a contractor or employee?

While it is tempting to treat legal staff, a contract lawyer, or any kind of help as an independent contractor, you may find yourself regretting this decision later.  It is almost impossible to go wrong classifying someone as your employee.  In fact, I don’t know how you can.  But bad outcomes abound if you label someone an independent contractor when they aren’t under Oregon law.  So before you go down this path, please read Mission Impossible? Working as an Independent Contractor in Oregon and Are Contract Lawyers Automatically Independent Contractors?  And this is critical, please review Lisa Brown, “Independent Contractors or Employees?” In Brief (April 2016), available on the PLF website at Practice Management > Publications > In Brief.

How can I best use my staff person?

Other than avoiding the unauthorized practice of law, there aren’t any limitations on the type of tasks you choose to delegate to a staff person.  However, there are some things to avoid.  Check out these posts: Six Mistakes Lawyers Make with Staff, Part I and Six Mistakes Lawyers Make with Staff, Part II.  Also review the staffing resources available on the PLF website.  Select Practice Management, then Forms, and choose the “Staff” category.  For specific tips, Google “how to best use a legal secretary” or how to best use a paralegal.”

What issues do I need to be aware of when hiring?

On May 28, 2015, the Professional Liability Fund held a CLE on how to hire with confidence.  The program is available at no charge on the PLF website.  Select CLE, then Past CLE, and look for Employment Practices for Lawyers: Hiring with Confidence and Avoiding Trouble at Termination.  Download the materials or checkout the highlights here.  One resource you should take advantage of: the Technical Assistance Support Line through the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI).  Also see:

What if I have to fire my employee?

The CLE referenced above has you covered.  For the key takeaways on avoiding trouble at termination, check out this blog post.  Also see the “Checklist for Departing Staff,” available on the PLF website.  Select Practice Management, then Forms, and choose the “Staff” category.

Parting Thoughts

While it is more than possible to regret hiring a specific person, I’ve never met anyone who regretted the decision to add staff.  Once you hire an employee, you will probably wonder, how did I ever get along without help?

[All Rights Reserved Beverly Michaelis 2016]

Are You Losing Clients?

If your client retention rate is less than 90-95%, something is terribly wrong.

You might react by changing your fee agreement – aiming to “punish” the client who terminates your services after a substantial amount of work is done but prior to a recovery.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve the underlying problem.  If you fail to keep one in ten (or more than one in ten clients), it is time for some serious soul searching.

Hybrid Fee Agreements Don’t Solve Client Retention Problems

Don’t get me wrong, hybrid fee agreements have their place.  They are very effective in helping lawyers achieve cash flow during long months of toiling away on a contingent fee case.  They are also a creative way to address client push-back against the traditional hourly fee approach.

They are not effective in curing client retention woes.

What Does it Take to Keep Clients?

Improving client retention isn’t rocket science.  In fact, you can do it by following a simple acronym:  TREAT.

T – be Timely

R – Respond to client requests and concerns

E – show Empathy

A – demonstrate Assurance that client matters are being handled competently

T – deliver on the Tangibles.  Don’t send emails, invoices, or correspondence riddled with errors.

Read more about TREATing clients well here.

To simplify: show the same care and concern to your clients that you wish someone would show to you if you were in their shoes.

Remember that Poor Client Retention Can Lead to Bar Complaints and Malpractice Claims

If you need further motivation to kick your client retention up a notch, understand that how you treat clients is connected to everything in your law practice:

  • Client satisfaction and retention
  • Getting paid on time
  • Minimizing fee disputes
  • Future referrals
  • Avoiding bar complaints and legal malpractice claims

Go beyond TREATing clients well.  Do a thorough client relations check-up. This includes understanding the scope of the attorney-client relationship (when you can act and when you need the client’s informed consent) as well as managing client expectations.

Losing Clients on a Regular Basis Just Shouldn’t Happen

I am not currently in private practice, but in regard to client retention, nothing has really changed.

Back in the day, exactly one client terminated our firm.  This particular client read about a case in the news that she judged to be the same as hers.  She then fired us to free herself up to hire the lawyer who handled the case she read about.

In truth, we dodged a bullet when the client made this decision.  She would never have accepted (from us) that her case didn’t have the same value as the one she read about.

I can also share that in all the years I worked for a private law firm, we were on the other side of a client termination exactly once.

My point here is that my firm – and all firms we knew – simply didn’t lose clients.  And this is still true today for the majority of lawyers.  How do I know?

A large part of my job entails helping lawyers or families of lawyers close law practices.   I have been exposed to lawyers who were at the top of their game and lawyers who were not.  I also have a substantial amount of ongoing client contact due to these closures.

The truth is the lawyers need to do a lot wrong, and generally for some period of time, before clients jump ship.  Therefore, you don’t have to follow my client relations tips or suggestions for TREATing clients well 100% of the time.  No one is perfect.  But you should keep clients uppermost in your mind just about every waking moment that you are at work.

We All Know What to Do – Why Can’t We Do It?

None of this is really new.  So why is it so hard?  The number one reason: you are trying to juggle too many cases without the proper resources.  You are practicing beyond your expertise and not weeding out cases and clients; you are practicing within your scope, but your caseload is too high; you are unwilling to invest in staff, technology, or other solutions.

Making money isn’t easy.  As a result, many lawyers skimp.  They try to get by without hiring someone despite the fact they have more work than they can handle.  This trap is referred to as “penny wise and pound foolish.”  Next week I’ll write about how you can make money by spending money and hiring staff.

All Rights Reserved [2015] Beverly Michaelis

 

 

Employment Practices for Lawyers – Avoiding Trouble at Termination

Last week I shared the top tweets for hiring staff from our May 28, 2015 seminar, Employment Practices for Lawyers. This week we turn to avoiding trouble at termination.  Here are just a few of the tips our speaker shared.  All the tweets from the CLE can be viewed on Storify.

disability

absenteeismflsa

Read all the tweets here. Oregon lawyers may order the CLE free of charge on the PLF website, http://www.osbplf.org.  Select CLE > Past, then Employment Practices for Lawyers: Hiring with Confidence and Avoiding Trouble at Termination.

All Rights Reserved [2015] Beverly Michaelis

Ending the Attorney-Client Relationship

Calling all Oregon lawyers: are you taking advantage of your right to file a “notice of termination of relationship?”

ORS 9.380(2) was amended in 2011 to allow withdrawal by filing a simple notice, provided two conditions are met. First, the case must be concluded, meaning a final determination or judgment has been entered. Second, all services required of the lawyer under the fee agreement must be complete.

“The relationship of attorney and client may be terminated after the entry of a judgment or other final determination in an action or proceeding by the filing of a notice of termination of the relationship in the action or proceeding. The notice must be signed by the attorney and must state that all services required of the attorney under the agreement between the attorney and the client have been provided.”

The amendment eliminates the step of filing a formal motion with the court.

Why You Should File Notices of Termination

Take advantage of ORS 9.380(2) at the conclusion of your cases. File a notice of termination and remove yourself as attorney of record. This is especially important in practice areas where matters could reopen or require future steps.  Family law is notorious for post-judgment activity (contempt actions, modifications, and the like).  Criminal law practitioners may or may not be responsible for filing motions to dismiss when a one-year diversion agreement is completed.  If your agreed-upon services do not include filing the dismissal, withdraw. ORS 9.390 makes clear you are on the hook until the notice is filed:

“When an attorney is changed, or the relationship of attorney and client is terminated, as provided in ORS 9.380, written notice of the change or termination shall be given to the adverse party. Until the notice is given, the adverse party is bound to recognize the former attorney.”

Comply with the Rules of Professional Conduct

Satisfying ORS 9.380(2) isn’t the only step.  You must also comply with the Rules of Professional Conduct.  Oregon RPC 1.16(d) provides:

“Upon termination of representation, a lawyer shall take steps to the extent reasonably practicable to protect a client’s interests, such as giving reasonable notice to the client, allowing time for employment of other counsel, surrendering papers and property to which the client is entitled and refunding any advance payment of fee or expense that has not been earned or incurred. The lawyer may retain papers, personal property and money of the client to the extent permitted by other law.”

At the conclusion of a case, the timing issues may be less critical – assuming the client does not wish to purse an appeal – but the remainder of the rule must be followed.  To learn more about this topic, and how to properly disengage, see: How to Fire a Client.

[All Rights Reserved 2015 Beverly Michaelis]