I admit that I have a bit of an old-school approach to communication with clients. But we are progressing at lightning speed on alternative forms of communication that reach well beyond the old traditional snail-mail letters meticulously written on firm letterhead. I think we should be embracing both the old and the new to create foolproof ways of communicating with our clients.
The top complaints against attorneys, and the most prevalent bar grievances, are related to failure to adequately and routinely communicate with clients.
RPC 1.4 states:
(a) A lawyer shall:
(1) promptly inform the client of any decision or circumstance with respect to which the client’s informed consent, as defined in Rule 1.0(e), is required by these Rules;
(2) reasonably consult with the client about the means by which the client’s objectives are to be accomplished;
(3) keep the client reasonably informed about the status of the matter;
(4) promptly comply with reasonable requests for information; and
(5) consult with the client about any relevant limitation on the lawyer’s conduct when the lawyer knows that the client expects assistance not permitted by the Rules of Professional Conduct or other law.
(b) A lawyer shall explain a matter to the extent reasonably necessary to permit the client to make informed decisions regarding the representation.
In order to meet our ethical obligations in the context of a busy practice, it is important to have a number of solid procedures in place in your office. Here are some suggestions for improving your office procedures:
Have an Open and Candid Discussion When Meeting with a New or Potential Client
Start a new client relationship with an open and candid discussion about what a client can expect from you. Discuss how you will communicate with them and how they can best communicate with you. Also, be specific in identifying the client’s objectives and how you intend to work to achieve their goals. These discussions can be followed-up with written or digital disclosures and letters setting forth your understanding of your mutual goals and strategy.
Present and explain the provisions of your contract and answer any lingering questions to the client’s satisfaction. Make sure you both have a good understanding of your agreed arrangement in order to minimize disputes later.
Answer Calls and Emails Promptly
Don’t procrastinate in responding to client inquiries. Answer them in a timely way in order to avoid complaints later and to ensure open communication. Be cautious using email and messaging for client communications. If you use those tools have a firm policy in place documenting conversations in your file.
Immediately Advise Clients of a Change in Status or Occurrence in Their Case
Keep clients advised on activity in their case, or the reason for a lack of activity. Always copy clients in on communication from the opposing party and court. Also, provide clients copies of all documents you are sending out or filing. Whether you are sending copies through the mail or electronically, just get in the habit of doing this routinely so there is never any question of whether a client has received a copy of a document or not.
Be Detailed in Your Billing Statement
Of course, we need fastidious billing in order to get paid, but be cognizant of the fact that our statements are a vital form of communicating with our clients. Be detailed enough that they can actually understand the work that is being done by your office on their behalf. Clients are not present to see the majority of the work that we are doing for them. It is easy to understand why they so frequently question what we have done for them, why it took so long, and why it cost so much. Stay ahead of those questions by providing consistent, timely, detailed, and easy-to-read billing statements to your clients. Look at billing statements as a key tool in your client communication, not just as a shorthand note for your bookkeeper.
Billing statements should be sent out routinely, on at least a monthly basis. They can be sent by mail or just as effectively and more cost efficiently, electronically. Often providing a client a choice on how they receive their statements can be beneficial in keeping clients happy.
Update Client Status on a Regular Basis
Have a protocol for meeting with or connecting in some way with clients on a routine basis. You can go old-school and send out a monthly questionnaire asking about changes with your client and/or you can use a prepared template for providing your client an update on the status of their case. If nothing is happening, explain that it is purposeful and tell them the reason for the lack of progress on their case. You can also easily text appointment reminders to clients to avoid confusion or no-shows.
Court Appearances, Settlement Conferences and Mediations
Make sure your clients understand the importance of upcoming appearances and know what is expected of them in each circumstance. Do not assume that they know what to expect or that they actually understand what is going to be happening, let alone their place in the procedure. It is on you to be sure they are prepared. Clients who go into these proceedings unprepared do not present well and are often very unhappy with their attorney, especially if things do not go their way.
Be candid and thorough about the terms of settlement agreements and the consequences of the agreements. Hash out the details and the questions before finalizing the agreement. There is not much that is worse than a client who changes their mind after entering into a settlement agreement, or one who claims collusion. Make sure you protect your client and yourself from those awkward and difficult situations.
Finally, always err on the side of caution. Clients seldom complain that they hear too much from their attorney. The risk is always that we are under communicating. Therefore, if there is any question about whether you have effectively communicated with your client, go the extra mile, and provide them more information. It will always be the safest and most ethical approach to dealing with your clients.
Jeanne, co-founder and managing partner of Divorce Lawyers for Men, is a successful civil litigator who has focused her legal practice on complex litigation, primarily catastrophic injury and wrongful death lawsuits. She has served as a member and Chair of the Washington State Bar Association Law Clerk Board, as a Thurston County Family Court Child Advocate, and as a founding member of the Thurston County Volunteer Legal Clinic.