Because clients usually call lawyers when they have a
problem, attorneys need to find ways to eliminate the
unnecessary irritants that really send clients up a wall.
Here are some of the most common complaints that clients
have about lawyers plus suggestions for avoiding or mitigating
1. Poor Responsiveness
Failure to return phone calls and to respond to letters
or faxes is the number one complaint clients have about
THE CURE: The main reasons lawyers
give for failing to return phone calls—being out-of-the-office,
in trial, or doing research on another matter—are
usually valid, but that's not a good excuse. Clients
want to be assured that their matter is being dealt
with. They don't want to feel ignored. Returning phone
calls should be considered a top priority activity.
If you are unable to respond personally, have a secretary,
paralegal, or other lawyer ready to step in and say
that you are presently unavailable and will return the
call or letter by a certain time or date.
2. Talking To a Machine Instead of a Person
When a client "reaches out and touches"
a technological robot without a human face, the stress
level goes up. The loss of human contact equals a loss
of power, and a loss of power is an irritant for the
THE CURE: Voice mail can be a good
tool, but not when the client feels trapped by it. Make
sure that a receptionist, telephone operator, or secretary—a
real person—answers the phone for the initial
call to the firm. If you're available, you can take
the call. If you're not available, then the same person
gives the caller the option of leaving a voice mail
message or a message with the operator. Clients are
empowered by dealing with human beings, not an electronic
3. Not Knowing What's Going On
Clients want to know what's happening with their matter.
Even though the lawyer might be doing a great job with
documents, the court, or the opposing party, if the
client doesn't know that, then there's bound to be a
problem—usually at fee-paying time.
THE CURE: Clients appreciate communication;
the more, the better. Show your clients that you're
doing your job by sending them copies of documents,
by writing, or calling them. "Paper" the client.
Keep clients informed and tell them what's happening
at every step of the process.
4. Unnecessary Costs
Clients hate paying for unnecessary service, e.g.,
using FedEx or messengers when the U.S. mail will do,
or for service that they feel provides no value. This
open-checkbook problem is most often an issue with open-ended
fee arrangements where lawyers run up costs on the client's
THE CURE: Lawyers need to be very
sensitive to costs that are passed on to the client.
The test for extraneous costs goes like this: If you
were paying for it out of your pocket, would you do
it? Since unnecessary costs frequently occur because
of attorney procrastination, one way to avoid the problem
is simple: Do the work in a timely fashion. That way,
you won't have to use rush services.
5. Lack of Innovation
Because they are risk-averse and tend to be conservative,
lawyers have a reputation for being reactive—for being
"Mr./Ms. No." But clients usually want someone
to suggest ways to make something happen, rather than
a list of reasons why not. If lawyers are merely reactive,
the client may believe that the attorney is only a technician,
and a technician is a commodity who can be easily replaced
based on pricing, among other factors.
THE CURE: Clients are looking for
lawyers who will help them stay out of trouble or achieve
their objectives. That's why they appreciate advice
that offers creative approaches to problems. This is
called being proactive, and it creates a strong
bond between the client and lawyer. To become more proactive,
learn the business of the client. Arm yourself with
enough knowledge to have an opinion and say: "If
you do this, I think that will happen." Clients
will always need to make the final decision, but they
want to know what you think.
6. Vague, Confusing and Incomplete Bills
A bill that only says: "For legal services rendered"
is an incomplete bill. Clients want to know what they're
being charged for and what the successes (or failures)
have been. Bills that are inaccurate, vague, or confusing
are sources of irritation to clients.
THE CURE: Start in the initial client
meeting by explaining what and how you are going to
bill. Then explain the billing process again, in writing,
in the letter of engagement. Be complete in your billing
statements. Use action verbs to describe your services.
Clearly indicate what transpired, what was researched—who
did what, when, and what was accomplished. You want
clients to have an appreciation of the effort expended
and the successes achieved on their behalf.
Edward Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC, is
a coach to lawyers and certified management consultant
who shows attorneys and law firms how to be more profitable.
Ed's latest book is Collecting Your Fee: Getting
Paid From Intake to Invoice (ABA 2003); he is also
the author of Attorney & Law Firm Guide to The
Business of Law, 2d ed. (ABA 2002) and Secrets
of the Business of Law: Successful Practices for Increasing
Your Profits. To make suggestions or comments about
this article, call (800) 837-5880 or send an e-mail
You can also order a free e-zine or visit Ed on the
web at www.lawbiz.com.