Clients are not stupid.
They might be misinformed, but they should be respected for what they know about what they do and what they have done.
Keeping this in mind helps lawyers communicate effectively with their clients while also adhering to the Rules of Professional Conduct.
Mark Berman of New York (Ganfer Shore Leeds & Zauderer) and Carol Schiro Greenwald, Ph.D., examined best practices and important considerations on the recent CLE webinar, “Successful Client Relationships are Based on Responsive, Ethical Communications.”
When and how it begins
The touchstone of the client-lawyer relationship is the lawyer’s obligation is to: assert the client’s position under the rules of the adversary system, to maintain the client’s confidential information except in limited circumstances and to act with loyalty during the period of the representation.
Mark Berman said that the initial email or intake is when the attorney-client relationship for conflicts develops. “Even when you get that original email it could give you a little or a lot of information and you perhaps haven’t done your conflicts checks yet, but for the purposes of conflicts, that initial call even before a retainer agreement is signed, that is when the relationship develops,” said Berman.
Greenwald cautioned lawyers to be “very general” when online and answering initial questions from potential clients. “You don’t want to answer in such specifics that they think you are developing a relationship,” said Greenwald.
Greenwald noted that if you read the Rules of Professional Conduct, “clients make major decisions – Many major decisions.” She reminded lawyers that clients hire you but they also have the right to end a case. They also have the ultimate authority to determine the purposes to be served.
“It is the attorney’s role to guide clients so they have enough info to make decisions that are well-informed,” said Greenwald. Berman agreed that the client is in control, but suggested that communications with clients, particularly with settlements, are always in writing.
Berman examined whether or not it is appropriate for lawyers to copy their clients on emails with the opposing counsel. As a “rule of thumb,” he does not, nor does he blind copy them. He will then forward communications to clients to minimize any issues. Greenwald added that it gives lawyers a chance to add context to the emails and is good for transparency.
A key goal is for a lawyer to move from a vendor to a trusted adviser. “Recognize that you begin like any other vendor and you have to earn your client’s trust,” said Greenwald. “You earn trust through your behavior.”
Greenwald explained that most humans do not think about a lawyer’s expertise; they assume you are an expert and will judge you on what you know about their world. How many people like me have you helped? They expect you to answer questions about their industry or personal status.
“You want to be the person they call before they make the deal,” said Greenwald.
Berman concurred, noting that is a long process involving communications, responsiveness and being available. Greenwald clarified that responsiveness does not mean you jump every time a client calls you, but that you set up a communications framework so clients know you will respond.
Clients do not necessarily want to settle. They want to know that you share their values about where you want to go and how you are going to get there, said Greenwald. They also want forward thinking advice in addition to legal advice.
“You have to be both strategic and collaborative,” said Greenwald. “You are educating them to be your assistant so you can both move forward to get results.”
A little empathy goes a long way, particularly showing clients you understand how they get to this point. You never have to say “I agree;” you have to say “I get it.”
With regards to Rule 1.3, Greenwald said you must be diligent and prompt and not neglect your clients.
“Calendar yourself so everything keeps going,” said Greenwald, who added that the second highest reason for grievances is communication. “You might cause a client needless anxiety. You don’t want to do that. It’s all about confidence and trust,” Berman agreed, “Reliability and credibility and meeting deadlines is extraordinarily important.”
Greenwald concluded, “Happy clients become loyal clients. These clients come back more and are a good source for referrals.”