Outside it might be freezing, but inside your office you need to keep your client relations nice and warm.
Otherwise you face the chilly possibility of a Bar grievance or malpractice claim.
The secret? Adjusting your client thermostat to a safe, comfortable setting – and then leaving it there as the case unfolds.
Avoiding the Polar Vortex
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Attorney-client engagements can be volatile. Emotions run high. Pressure builds. Temperatures fluctuate wildly.
Problem cases often pass through three distinct phases:
Red-hot at the beginning. Clients come to you injured, angry or afraid. Sometimes they are all three. You calm them down. You throw them a lifeline. You give them hope. What’s not to love?
At this stage, you are considered awesome.
Cooling-down in the middle. The honeymoon ends. Reality sets in. The client realizes that relief might not come until months or years down the road – if it comes at all. Now you are no longer seen as a savior. In fact the client is starting to think you might be part of the problem.
At this stage, you are considered average.
Ice-cold at the conclusion. Things end badly. Your motion was denied, your case dismissed. Your client did not get what they wanted. Naturally, it’s your fault. You must have done something wrong. Or perhaps you were incompetent from the get-go.
At this stage, you are considered awful.
Managing Expectations Is Key
One way to avoid wild weather swings is to manage your clients’ expectations from the outset.
Some of them will walk into your office with dangerously unrealistic ideas about what you do and how the process works. They think you can snap your fingers and make their troubles disappear. Or you can rewind the clock and give them their old lives back. Or make them rich or happy or whatever. And they want it done by next week.
How to tell if a client’s expectations are out of whack? Start by asking them. In the very first meeting, consider such questions as:
Why do you think you need a lawyer?
What brought you to my office?
What exactly do you want me to do for you?
What goals do you want us to accomplish together?
What is your idea of a successful outcome?
How long do you think it might take to get there?
Here are some other tips for keeping your clients warm and happy:
Define your role. Tell them you’re not a therapist. You’re not a mind-reader. You’re not a magician. You’re a counselor, an adviser, an advocate, an officer of the court and an ethics-bound member of the bar.
Give them a weather map. Educate them about your job as a lawyer and how the system works. Give them a summary of pertinent law. Lay out options. Point out icebergs and other hazards that may loom on the horizon.
Offer a forecast. Sometimes we are reluctant to make case predictions. We don’t want to get locked into a position that may come back to haunt us later. This is understandable and, to a degree, wise. But clients come to us for guidance. They want to know if they have a good case or not. So give them something. An opinion – based on experience and stated in terms of likelihood-of-success – is not the same as a guarantee. Always add the qualifier that opinions change as facts emerge and conditions evolve.
Don’t confuse blind desperation with blanket authorization. Keep the client informed and in the loop. Get consent for critical decisions. Put it in writing when appropriate.
Remember that activity generates warmth. Don’t let the case grow stale. If you see frost accumulating on a file folder, it’s probably time to pull it out and do something.
Prepare for doldrums. Is the case entering a long stretch where nothing much will happen? Tell the client. Make sure they know you haven’t forgotten about them or fallen asleep at the wheel.
And finally, remember that the goal is not to control your clients. You won’t be able to do that – at least not all of them – any more than you can control the weather.
Focus instead on setting your client thermostat at a comfortable level. Then you will be able to weather any storm.
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms improve their well-being and create saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.