Many attorneys believe their next client relationship
will be "the luck of the draw" so to speak.
To some extent that's true. But it's absolutely possible
to build a practice that is virtually free of problem
clients and has strong cash flow – if you're willing
to refine or redesign your client intake and communications
There are four basic steps firms can take to dramatically
increase the quality and consistency of their client
relationships and help maintain good cash flow.
Step#1: Choose Your Clients Carefully
If you have attorneys who believe that, on a slow
week, the prospect of a little revenue from an "F"
client is better than no revenue at all - they need
to think again. "F" clients - the ones who
their gut is already telling them will be trouble -
usually end up costing them and the firm far more in
time, overhead, stress, and aggravation than they will
ever pay in fees. In fact, the unpaid fees are only
part of the issue. Perhaps more important is the time
they take, which attorneys could better use for client
development or taking better care of "A" clients.
"F" clients actually hold the attorney back
from taking positive actions to build their practice,
and create undue stress on both attorney and staff.
So, when an obvious "F" client is encountered,
the attorney should just say "no." Better
that they use their time for building their practice
than to give it away to a client without scruples. And
beware – not every "F" client is obvious.
Attorneys should spend more time with every prospective
client, asking questions and listening carefully to
answers, attitudes, and implications, to identify potential
Let's make an important distinction between the pro
bono client and the "F" client. Pro bono work
is important, but the wise attorney chooses pro bono
work up front rather than discovering halfway through
a matter that they're working for free.
In fact, a good client selection process starts before
the attorney ever meets with the prospective client.
It starts with the initial call to the attorney's office.
The attorney's assistant can ask some basic questions
that disqualify some prospective clients from making
an appointment at all. These might be questions like:
- "What is the matter concerning?" (Is
it even in the attorney's practice area?)
- "Have you worked with more than one other attorney
on this matter?" (Odds are that, if the caller
has consulted with more than one other attorney, either
they or the matter spells trouble.)
- "M. Jones has an initial consultation fee of
$200. Will you be paying by credit card or check?"
(Most of those who will balk at a nominal initial
retainer will be "shoppers" looking for
free advice, and not serious prospects.)
- "Who referred you to our office?" (The
assistant should have a list of the attorney's referral
sources, and make anyone referred by them a priority.)
Step #2: Define the Working Relationship and Set Client
Attorneys often jump directly into case details as
soon as the client has agreed to work with them. They're
off and running, already immersing themselves in the
familiar process of developing a case strategy. Unfortunately,
they may well have left their client at the starting
"Client communications" is one of the most
frequent causes of bar grievances, with good reason.
Clients are seldom told what the structure and standards
are in terms of communication.
It's vitally important to remember that the vast majority
of clients have never used an attorney before, and therefore
have no idea how the relationship will work. To them
their matter is by far the most important item on the
attorney's agenda. Without such an understanding, they
will form their own expectations about how the relationship
should work. And invariably, it's very different from
the attorney's modus operandi.
Therefore it's important that clients be provided with
very specific information on how they and the attorney
will work together at the very beginning of the relationship,
before they form their own expectations. Rather than
simply giving them an agreement to sign – or worse,
to take home and sign (they'll never read it all) –
they should be walked through a detailed and structured
process. This includes:
1) A verbal guided tour through the agreement.
a) What will and will not be included
in the representation.
b) Terms of the retainer agreement.
2) A financial discussion.
a) What fees will be charged for what
type of work.
b) Details on how fees are charged.
i) Hourly and partial-hour
ii) How phone calls
iii) How e-mails
iv) Types of charges
which may appear without client involvement:
strategy meetings, meetings with other lawyers,
travel if necessary,
copying and materials, other costs, direct and indirect.
c) How the retainer works.
d) How billings will be handled.
i) How soon after
being recorded will hours be billed.
ii) Who to call
for questions on their bill.
e) What happens when payment is past
i) 10 days - first
ii) 20 days - second
iii) 30 days - work
is suspended or motion to withdraw is sent.
3) How communications are best facilitated.
a) Best times to call to speak with
b) Hours the attorney will normally
not be available to speak with them.
c) How and when calls will be returned.
d) Who can help if the attorney is
e) What times of day and week office
meetings are normally scheduled.
f) What kinds of materials they'll
be copied on.
i) How they'll be
informed of what to do with them: For their file, for
their response or action.
g) What to do when the call is an
h) Times when it is important to call
Of course, all of this should be provided in writing,
and tucked into a good-looking folder where they can
collect everything the attorney's office sends them.
The entire walkthrough can be accomplished in 15-30
minutes, and can be done by a paralegal or associate.
This small amount of time upfront will reap considerable
- It will set the "context" of the working
relationship and reduce client stress during the process.
- It will save the attorney and staff uncounted hours
answering calls. It will reduce client frustration
around having calls returned. It will encourage clients
to speak to others in the office.
- It will clarify their financial obligations and
the consequences of not meeting them
- It will provide written "standards" which
can be referred to when they express concerns over
the working relationship.
Step #3: Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Two important principles in communication:
The first principle: every time you communicate with
a client (or don’t communicate) you are, at the
gut level doing only one of two things: increasing trust
or decreasing it.
One of the most common client complaints is “I
don’t know (or don’t understand) what’s
happening!” So make sure that effective (not just
“adequate” – because who is to decide
what’s adequate? You or the client?) Here are
some ways to do that.
First, make sure that every client gets some type of
“update” communication – ideally a
phone call, or at least an e-mail or note – at
least once a month – even when nothing is happening.
If that’s the case, tell them, and let them know
when you expect something will happen. Silence breeds
paranoia, and paranoia is a disease of a “D”
Next, make sure the client receives copies of all pertinent
information. But don’t just send those copies
– help them understand what those copies are all
about. Develop a series of pre-printed clip-on notes
or even rubber stamps which say things like “FYI
and file only – no action needed” “Please
read and review for our next meeting” “Please
read and sign where indicated” or “Please
read and call to schedule a meeting.” When necessary,
dictate a cover letter of explanation.
Communications aids such a this help clients feel less
fearful, and keep them participating fully in their
Second principle: every communication contains two
elements: information and service.
A client can feel served by a phone call from a helpful
team member when the attorney was not going to be able
to get back to them timely, even when they didn’t
get the information they desired.
So an unreturned call justly upsets a client, not only
because they didn’t get the information
they wanted, but because they felt ignored, unimportant,
So, return phone calls promptly according to the standards
you laid out in your client education meeting. Delegate
it to the appropriate team member as per the standards
laid out in the meeting, and if you can’t return
the call in the specified period, have a team member
call with an apology and an offer to help.
How do you know if your communications efforts are
effective and not simply adequate?
ASK them. The best firms regularly have an outside person,
or someone in the firm not on their legal team, check
in with clients to find out how they are perceiving
the attorney’s and team’s and firm’s
efforts on their behalf. Sound far fetched? Why? After
all, it’s the client’s matter, the client’s
money, and he client’s life. They’ve just
put it all in our hands for safekeeping. We work for
Last, the bill. You already know it’s one of
the most fear-inducing communications you can send them,
so do everything you can to reduce the fear factor.
Bill as quickly as possible after doing the work; never
let more than 30 days go by, and provide detailed explanations
of billings. Ideally, you should keep a recorder handy,
and instead of slapping a decimal into the computer,
dictate the time and what it was spent on.
Instead of simply not billing for certain things –
short calls, check-in calls, etc. include them in the
bill, along with their cost – then deduct them
as a “courtesy discount.” You already do
a lot of thing for free for your client. Let them know.
We all like nothing better than something free.
From a client’s point of view, effective communications
makes the difference between doing it with their attorney
– or having their attorney do it to them. And
for the attorney, it can make the difference between
happy, paying clients, and unpaid bills, complaints,
grievances or even malpractice suits.
Step #4: Live by Your Own Standards
If the attorney sets standards for the client, they
need to be prepared to live by them, or all of the foregoing
was wasted time.
Don't take non-urgent phone calls during hours indicated
as "not available" just because you have a
moment. The client will decide you should always take
Train staff to direct calls to the paralegal or associate
for assistance. Return calls promptly as per the standard
given the client. Have others return calls you can't
get to within the time standard. Copy the client with
all promised materials, with instructions on what to
do with it (read and file, read and respond, etc.)
Bill within the standard set, follow up on overdue
billings per the standard, and take actions as indicated
in the standard.
Many an "A" client slips to "D"
or "E" or even "F" because of lack
of enforcement of the standards that were explained
to them. When they fail to pay bills and the attorney
continues to work, they learn they don't have to pay.
When the attorney takes a week to return their call,
they come to believe their problem isn't important to
the attorney. When they receive unidentified papers
in the mail, they get worried and fearful.
The cumulative result is a good client who starts to
act like a poor one. All because no one educated them
on the process and the working relationship, and no
one in the attorney's office is operating on a standard.
Sound like a lot of work? Then think about the time
an attorney spends working for free unintentionally,
and the stress caused by an unhappy client – or worse,
the grievance filed by one. Then, think about an office
free of "F" clients and filled with less stressed
and more satisfied clients (and staff).
Take steps now to build and implement a more structured
client intake and communications system, for the sake
of your clients – and your sanity.
Dustin Cole is president of Attorneys
Master Class, a company which helps firms maximize
revenues by enhancing attorney skills. Cole specializes
in working with partners seeking to take their practices
to the next level, and with practice groups to increase
productivity and marketing effectiveness. For more
information go to www.attorneysmasterclass.com
or contact Cole at (407) 830-9810 or via e-mail at