Managing those difficult client relationships as a newly-admitted lawyer
The ADLS Newly Suited Committee was established in 2016 with a mandate to support and mentor those entering the profession. Members of the Committee range from recent graduates through to those with five years’ PQE, from junior barristers to solicitors at firms both large and small, and from centres around the country.
The Newly Suited Committee runs a regular advice column for recently-admitted lawyers who might need information and guidance about professional and practical issues relevant to those new to practising law. This week, the Committee helps #stuckforideas with some tips on managing client relationships well.
“Dear Newly Suited
I’ve begun running my own files and have been struggling with some of the more difficult clients who seem to make my job harder than it needs to be! Any ideas how to manage my client relationships the best way possible?
All practitioners will come across clients every now and again who require a lot more empathy to deal with. Here are some tips and tricks on how to manage the client relationship well from the beginning and, if things get tricky, some ideas on how to navigate any issues.
1. Set expectations from the word go, and continue to communicate
If expectations are set well at the outset, it is less likely that issues will crop up later in the matter. Communicate with your clients from the moment they instruct you. Make sure they know what fees to expect, when to expect invoices, any timeframes involved, and who they will be dealing with.
If you’re unfamiliar with the client’s style, it is also worth checking (or setting) their expectations about how proactive you will be with their matters (as lawyers are often reactive), and whether they expect a ‘full-service’ or want you to give them opportunities to economise by carrying out some of the non-legal aspects of matters (if applicable in your practice area).
We all know files are fluid and things can change part-way through, so keep the lines of communication open. If the fee is increasing, particularly if you have given an estimate, you must make sure your client is informed. If you are the main point of contact but are obtaining assistance from a colleague who might contact your client, give the client a heads-up first. They will feel much better if there are no surprises, and are less likely to bite your head off when the invoice comes if they have been apprised of the issues on the matter along the way.
2. If your client is new to the firm (or new to instructing lawyers), make sure they understand how fees work
While we may all be familiar with the six-minute unit (or variations thereof), to most of our clients, time recording is foreign. They might not understand that each email, phone call, and ‘quick pop-in’ to the office will be clocking up units – and consequently increasing their fee. It is often helpful to explain to new clients, particularly those who want to call for an update every day, that the more correspondence you have with them, the higher their fee may be. Be clear that you will inform them as soon as you have an update for them, to prevent unnecessary correspondence. However, this approach should be tempered by the reality that, if they involve you in their matters only when it is too late, that too can be expensive! This balance will get easier with longer-term relationships.
3. Set boundaries
As a newly suited lawyer, it may be difficult to know where boundaries need to be drawn in our relationships with clients. Sometimes, we find ourselves wanting to be friends with our clients, or we get too caught up in their affairs (particularly when dealing with emotional matters). Remember to keep boundaries professional. If a client appears to be relying on you too much in a personal or emotional capacity, remind them that you are their lawyer and suggest that there are other people who would be better-placed (and more cost-effective) to offer them non-legal support.
If you do find yourself becoming caught up in the emotion, talk to a colleague or your supervising partner to see if you can distance yourself from the file in some way. Or simply talk through the matter to try and unload some of that burden.
If a client pushes for you to behave outside your comfort zone – stop, think carefully and seek advice. A client expressing frustration about requirements for witnessing or certifying documents may simply need an explanation that requirements are the same for all lawyers, but any client who succeeds in bullying a young practitioner into breaching their duties will probably have no qualms about using that later as leverage. Always remember your duties and obligations, and avoid placing yourself in a compromising position.
4. Try and ensure your advice is recorded in writing, and take thorough file notes of telephone and face-to-face discussions
There is nothing worse than advising a client over the phone (or in person) and then having them dispute what was said. Avoid this issue by ensuring thorough file notes are taken of each discussion. If you are trying to contact your client by phone (and your client is not answering), take notes of the date and time of each attempt. If advice is provided over the phone or in person, follow it up with an email summarising the key points of advice. This will not only assure your client that you are doing your job, it will hopefully also remind them of your advice and give your supervising partner (and your firm’s insurers) some peace of mind.
5. Communicate cleverly
Try and word correspondence in the first person plural, using ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. This makes it clear that you are acting on behalf of the firm and it is the firm’s opinion, rather than your individual opinion.
If you aren’t sure of the answer to a question, simply say that you do not know, but that you will find out and come back to the client. Buying time to provide the correct answer is much less embarrassing than guessing, getting it wrong, and later having to correct yourself. Also, if you can’t answer on the spot, having to go away and work on an issue demonstrates to the client that you are acting on a complex legal matter. But be sure to address this head-on, so it does not come across as being unprepared.
6. Know your client
It is important to take note of who you are acting for. Is it an individual, a corporate, a local body, or a government department? Often, the approach, advice, and communication will alter depending on which type of client you are dealing with. For personal clients, a relaxed and informal approach may be appreciated. For large corporates or government departments, it is likely they will require a formal, more technical approach. A good lawyer can cut the cloth to fit his or her client, rather than expecting clients to adapt to his or her own style.
7. When things go ‘pear-shaped’, bring in reinforcements
Even if you do all of the above, you may still find yourself facing a client who just isn’t satisfied. If that happens, your supervising partner should be your first port of call. Ask your partner to sit in on your client meetings and/or check correspondence before it is sent (many firms will have policies to this effect, so be sure you are familiar with your employer’s expectations of you). The client may simply be assuaged by a senior practitioner being in the room (as unfair as that may seem).
Importantly, try not to let those difficult clients get to you. It happens to all of us, including the most seasoned practitioners. Just take it as one of those learning experiences you can’t avoid – however much you would like to!
From your friends at the ADLS Newly Suited Committee”
ADLS’ Newly Suited Committee invites questions and comments from those new to the profession on any issues they may be facing. Questions can be submitted by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and will be kept anonymous. Responses will be published on a regular basis in LawNews.