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Posted by: Barry Kolar on May 15, 2014

Client communication (or lack of adequate client communication) represents a significant percentage of the total number of malpractice claims and ethical complaints received by insurers and the Board of Professional Responsibility. The following general procedures should be implemented in a law practice to avoid client communication problems.

Correspondence & Communication
The attorney should communicate with the client and document all aspects of case acceptance, declination and status to the client as follows:

• Use engagement letters and/or fee agreements for all new matters.
• Use non-engagement letters for all matters declined.
• Use file-closing letters for all matters.
• Copy client with all correspondence/documents relating to client matter.
• Confirm in writing substantive issues of case, the process required to handle the case, legal advice, choices, and other information that may be difficult for the client to understand or contrary to what the client expects or wants to hear.  If your client declines to follow your advice on any matter of significance with regard to their matter, you should document the fact in a letter to the client, list what course they have chosen, and acknowledge their right to do so as the client. 
• Respond within seven days if reciprocal communication is required.
• Return phone calls within 24 hours, and if you cannot do so personally, have someone do so on your behalf.  Also use out-of-office messages on your voicemail with instructions for who to contact at the firm in the event of an emergency if you are going to be out for any significant period of time.
• Use client surveys to determine level of client satisfaction with services rendered.
• Client dissatisfaction should be addressed immediately upon attorney’s notice of same. Develop standard procedures for handling client complaints.
• Send detailed client billing monthly - regardless of fee arrangement. Monthly detailed billing apprises the client of the work you are doing for them and the cost of the work to date.

But It's an Emergency! Communicating with Clients
Many lawyers at some point contemplate whether they should give their cell phone number to clients for use 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 after hours for an emergency. Decide whether you want to charge extra for this service, especially for clients who use your cell number as a convenience, rather than for true emergencies. Disclose this extra charge to clients in your fee agreement. (One attorney weighing in on this issue advised that her retainer agreement called for a charge of twice her normal hourly rate for calls received after hours and on weekends if they were not placed to her office; however, she further advised that never actually charged the additional fee if there was a true emergency, but rather the provision simply deterred abuse.)  In addition, you may also want to consider having a separate line for these client emergencies.