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A seasoned family law practitioner explains how to avoid common mistakes lawyers make in working with clients.
Wouldn't you like an experienced colleague to stop you from making some of the easiest and most common mistakes that lawyers make in handling client matters? Marilyn Longwell does just that in Part I of her Modest suggestions on how not to mess up a divorce case in the October 2011 issue of ISBA's Family Law Section newsletter. While Longwell directs her article toward family law practitioners, lawyers in any field can apply her advice to good advantage.
Clients are customers, not buddies
"Clients aren't your buddies," Longwell reminds us, recounting the story of a client's screaming "What about my case?" upon his lawyer's keeling over in the courtroom with a heart attack.
Never forget, Longwell says, that your clients are customers, paying you to handle their legal matters. Once their cases are over, you might become friends, she says. As long as their matters are pending, though, socializing can only diminish a lawyer's objectivity and ability to advise clients effectively.
Though clients hire you to help them with their troubles, don't take clients with too many troubles, Longwell says. Specifically, don't take clients who are difficult, who lie to you, or who don't respect your time. Clients who show up late or not at all without calling in advance or who argue about whether you spent a tenth or a quarter of an hour on a phone call for which you've billed don't just have troubles, but are trouble, and will create more trouble in your life and your other cases, Longwell says.
Perhaps it should go without saying that lawyers should communicate with their clients, but many ARDC complaints have their roots in poor lawyer communication. Toward avoiding those complaints, Longwell says lawyers should be sympathetic but realistic, keep clients engaged and informed about their matters, and take every opportunity to communicate, including returning phone calls within a reasonable period of time.
"Manage your client's expectations from day one," Longwell says. Certainly, your aim is to do a great job for your clients, but "overly optimistic predictions invite later malpractice claims and contested fee petitions." And although clients may well want to vent their feelings and receive sympathy for their predicaments, good clients want realistic assessments of their positions and will not expect the impossible of their lawyers, she says.
Let's say you've been busy and haven't done something on one of your client's matters when that very client calls. Should you wait to return the call until you've attended to that task so that you can tell him you've completed it? "Very bad idea," says Longwell. "Most clients understand if you haven't been able to get to something that's not earth-shatteringly urgent," she says - or "they do if you call them back promptly." Furthermore, that client might have been calling to give you some necessary information.
Copy clients on case papers
Keep your clients informed by sending them copies of all case papers, Longwell says. And keep your clients busy by giving them some work to do: they can fill out their own financial disclosure statements, keep a journal, and compile discovery responses. "Not only will he feel like he is saving money by doing the leg work, but he will also feel like he owns the process," Longwell says. Moreover, "when he takes a lot of time attending to his assignments he'll be less inclined to yell at you because the case isn't done immediately."
Be sure to treat your clients well, Longwell advises. Let them know that you are concerned about their cases. Realize that clients forgive their lawyers' mistakes far more readily than deception, she says. "If you make a mistake and don't admit it, your client likely won't believe you in the future."
Some levity may ease your clients' tension from time to time, but do not cross the line into cruelty toward your clients' ex-spouses, she says. "Remember, they were together a lot longer (in most cases) than you and your client will be, and they may try to reconcile."
Finally, be very clear about financial arrangements with your client, Longwell admonishes. "There is nothing that can go wrong with a client relationship faster than the issue of fees," Longwell says. "Be sure to be clear about the expectations and make that clear in the contract."
Be sure, too, to follow the Rules of Professional Conduct and the statute in drafting your attorney-client contract, she says. Consider whether and what misunderstandings might arise, and include appropriate language to forestall them, she advises. Longwell provides a few examples of tweaks she's made over the years to her standard contract, including that her clients take responsibility for security if they choose to communicate with her by e-mail, text, or cell phone.
Family Law Section members can read the next installment of Longwell's advice, which will address handling client matters, in a forthcoming issue of the newsletter.