But It's an Emergency! Communicating with Clients

Many lawyers at some point contemplate whether or not they should give their home phone numbers to clients in case of an emergency. It's a simple question without an easy answer. It depends upon the nature of the practice, the location and your comfort level of allowing clients to intrude into your personal time. If you do decide to let clients know you are available at home in the case of an emergency, then it is critical that you and not the client determine what constitutes an emergency. You should put your guidelines in writing for distribution to all clients (especially all new clients) describing when it is and when it is NOT appropriate to call you at home for an emergency. Decide whether you want to charge extra for this service, especially for clients who use your home number as a convenience, rather than for true emergencies. Disclose this extra charge to clients in your fee agreement. In addition, you may also want to consider having a separate line at home for these client emergencies.

The Practice Tip of the Week is a service of the Practice Management Advisors Committee of the ABA Law Practice Management Section.

The PMA Committee is comprised of bar-sponsored practice management advisors from state bar associations and law societies in the U.S. and Canada. The tips are not meant as legal advice, nor binding on any bar association or law society.

Let your clients know you are always available to answer their questions about your bills. You can make the statement in the initial consultation, and put it in writing in your written fee agreement. Encourage them to read your bills thoroughly when they arrive. Also, consider a clause that limits the time a client may question specific charges - say, within 30-60 days of receipt - to encourage the client to address the issues sooner than later. Your clients will appreciate your willingness to be open about your fees and services.

The Solo Practice Tip of the Week is a service of the Practice Management Advisors Committee of the ABA Law Practice Management Section.

The PMA Committee is comprised of bar-sponsored practice management advisors from state bar associations and law societies in the U.S. and Canada. The tips are not meant as legal advice, nor binding on any bar association or law society.

When you are engaged by a new client, provide him or her with a sturdy file folder bearing a label with your firm's name, address, phone and fax numbers, e-mail, etc. Place a signed copy of the fee agreement in the file as the first document.

Further explain to the client that you will be sending copies of everything related to the case, both documents you generate and those you receive, and that the client should place these documents in the file immediately when received. Many clients don't have an adequate at-home filing system; the things you send, therefore, may end up on the kitchen counter decorated with applesauce or as someone's telephone message slip. By the end of representation (or at any point in between), your client will have a complete copy of their file.

Communication with the client begins at case acceptance.

After the screening process has been completed and a decision to represent the client has been made, the attorney should discuss the merits and problems of the client’s case with the client. It is important that the attorney convey verbally and in writing (via an engagement letter) the following to the client:

• The issues involved with the case.
• The problems regarding the case.
• The process involved in pursuing the case.
• The client’s obligations throughout the case and any specific requirements of the client.
• The estimated time frame for case resolution.
• The economics of taking the case to trial or settling the case.
• The attorneys and/or staff who will be involved with the case.
• How the firm will manage the case.
• How the firm will communicate case status with the client.
• Warning: Avoid any guarantees to the client regarding the outcome of the case.

Failure to properly screen cases can also lead to other problems - client communication problems. Lawyers usually don’t enjoy communicating with unpleasant and uncooperative clients or clients who have "problem" cases. This failure often leads to disciplinary complaints and malpractice claims.

Second to establishing good client/case screening procedures, is establishing good client communication procedures. Developing good communication skills coupled with creating policies and procedures to regularly communicate with all active clients should be a high priority in every law office. It is not only protection against complaints, it is just good business. Establishing realistic expectations during the initial client meeting, using engagement and non-engagement letters, returning client calls within 24 hours, being an active listener in client meetings, forwarding copies of all pleadings and documents to clients, and sending informative/descriptive monthly bills to clients should be minimum standard operating procedure in law offices. What else can you do to improve communication with clients? We'll explore this question in the coming weeks as we focus on client communications in upcoming practice tips.

Once you’ve determined you can work with a potential client, you need to screen the case. How do you do that? Let common sense and your own "gut feeling" guide you. Do the facts of the case support proceeding with it? Do you have the expertise necessary to handle the case? Do you have time to devote to it based on your current workload? What is the potential value of the case v. the cost to handle the representation? Will accepting the case drain the firm’s resources (financial and personnel) which would be better spent on more profitable cases?

As a new lawyer or at the start-up of your own firm, it is tempting (sometimes necessary) to take whatever clients or cases walk in the door. Even the most successful lawyers sometimes suffer from the fear that the last client that walked in the door is the last client that will walk in the door. But there are dangers in accepting every case. Lawyers who fail to initiate some discipline in the types of cases they accept early in their practice are the lawyers who eventually find that they are not managing their law practice - their law practice is managing them.

There are two aspects of case acceptance — client screening and case screening.

It is important that you, as the attorney, interview and screen the client for potential problems before case acceptance. What should you look for when screening a potential client? First, find out if the potential client been "shopping around" for an attorney with no success — until you? Does the client appear to have a reasonable view of the case and its value? Does the client appear to be honest? Will the client be cooperative with you along the way or does the client already have his or her own notion of how the case should be handled? Will the client agree with your fee arrangements and requirements for a retainer to pay for initial investigation costs? Does the client have the necessary documents associated with the case? Before accepting representation, have the client complete a comprehensive questionnaire which will provide you with all case facts and appropriate information about the client. Finally, complete a conflict of interest check to be sure no conflicts arise after you have already expended your valuable time on the client’s file.

Careful client screening is as important as careful case screening. Be sure you will be able to work with the potential client before accepting a case.