Fill in the blank: the practice of law would be fantastic if only ___.
If only what? If only attorneys got paid more? If only you received more interesting projects? What about…if only you had no problematic clients?
When talking to lawyers who are feeling burnt out, nine times out of ten, the reason is because of a very difficult, problematic client. Building relationships with clients—easy or difficult—is a part of the gig. Since the job will always require engaging with clients, the answer isn’t to “eliminate” the problematic ones, but rather, to increase the quality and consistency of positive client relationships.
First, exercise caution when engaging clients.
Things might be going slow, but that doesn’t mean you want to take on a problem client. In my many conversations with lawyers, whenever there is a complaint about a client, they had a “gut feeling” from the very beginning that this was going to be trouble. What was supposed to be a solution during a slow time is now costing the attorney or the firm far more in time, resources, and frustration than is being received in fees…and this problem client is now holding the attorney or the firm back from positively serving other clients and building the practice.
Here, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure—it is better to say “no” from the start.
Second, manage expectations.
When clients complain it usually has to do with communication issues with their attorney. Why? Because oftentimes, lawyers do not communicate what the structure and standards are when it comes to communication (I haven’t heard from you for weeks! Have you forgotten me? Or does this mean you’ve done everything you can and now we have to wait…? And why couldn’t you have told me that from the beginning).
Unless you are your own client (believe it or not…it happens), your client has no idea of how the relationship works. Every client believes that their matter is by far, the most important matter that the attorney should be paying attention to. If the relationship and communication expectations are not understood from the beginning, the client will form his or her own understanding (and the client is always right).
Make sure that you establish how you will work with your client from the very beginning—with specific information—before the client forms his or her own expectations. This not only helps reduce your stress, but also reduces the clients stress and frustration as well.
Third, communicate! COMMUNICATE!!!
Whenever you decide to communicate or not communicate, you are either increasing trust, or decreasing trust. Thus, make sure that you consistently update your client with what is going on, your thoughts on the matter, and when you expect something will happen. Silence creates panic. Communication educates the client so the client feels less fearful and in control of the matter.
Here, you should set a clear personal standard to always respond to client communications within 24 hours (personally, or delegated to an appropriate member of the team). Return phone calls and respond to emails.
Remember, that you can always STOP if your client tells you that you are communicating with them too much. And if you are not sure whether your communications are effective, you can always ask them. If everything is silent, however, then there is no way of knowing.