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Keeping Clients Happy Through Communication

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Although you’ve probably heard this before, perhaps even from me, it bears repeating:  The number one basis for grievances against attorneys is lack of communication.  A lack of communication can lead to misunderstandings about the attorney-client relationship, including what the legal services will be and how much they will cost.  The failure to communicate may result in a client believing they are still represented, when they are not. A dearth of communication can erode the relationship of trust between attorney and client.

The first question is why are communications, or the lack thereof, the source of most grievances?  There are several culprits, but primarily, failure to communicate adequately with a client may have something to do with a lack of time.  Communication takes time, and when you are in triage mode, communications tend to fall by the wayside.  For others, it is simply not prioritizing communications.  If we know that communications are at the heart of most grievances, then we must make it a priority.

Let’s look at two kinds of communications:  those required by the Rules of Professional Conduct, and those that are not.  First, Rule 1.4 is all about communications.  You must communicate with the client about the client’s objectives, or so the client can make an informed decisions regarding representation.  You must keep clients posted on important developments in the case, such as discovery deadlines and orders handed down.  Rule 1.4 also requires that you respond to reasonable requests for information from the client.

There are several other rules that require communications of some sort. Rule 1.2 requires that you convey settlement offers.  Rule 1.5 requires that certain information be communicated in a contingency fee agreement.  Rule 1.7 requires certain communications in the event a conflict of interest is discovered.  This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of required communications, as there are others peppered throughout the Rules.  I want to focus on those communications that, while not required by the Rules of Professional Conduct, are simply a good idea if you want to avoid a grievance.  How many of these do you do in your practice?

    1. Set the ground rules for communications including, how you would prefer to communicate and when the client should ordinarily expect a response.  Manage expectations, not only regarding the representation, but also about any potential outcome.
    2. When representation ends, send a disengagement notice. E-mail is fine if that is your normal communication method. If a client continues to contact you after representation ends, and you have not sent this notice, do not simply ignore him. Let the client know that representation has concluded.  If additional services will require another fee agreement, let him know that, too.
    3. If a potential client has contacted you, but you did not accept representation, send a non-engagement communication.  Do not assume that the client understood that you were not agreeing to represent them after the consultation.  The client may continue to send you information to review, for example.
    4. Try to respond to a client’s request for information within 24 hours, or have someone else in your office reach out to the client, if you are unavailable.  There is no 24-hour rule in the Rules of Professional Conduct, but it’s a good rule of thumb, and will let client know you are attentive to their needs.
    5. Sometimes it’s a good idea to let the client know when nothing is happening.  In many cases, a client matter has a fairly clear progression, with filing deadlines, court hearings, discovery, etc. You necessarily will be in regular contact with those clients.  But for other kinds of practice areas, such as estate planning, there may be only yearly deadlines, or no deadlines.  In those cases, create calendar entries to reach out to clients periodically, and let them know you are working on their matters, or what the next steps will be.

The Rules of Professional Conduct do not require that you be perfect.  You may miss a client call or email from time to time.  Make note of it, if it happens, and consider what you can do in the future to fix the issue.  I believe if you plan ahead and make client communication a priority, you will have happy clients, and happy clients are far less likely to file grievances.

ABOUT Deanna S. Brocker Deanna represents attorneys before the State Bar on grievance and disciplinary matters and also counsels attorneys and law firms on various ethics matters. She previously served as Assistant Ethics Counsel to the NC State Bar for over 10 years. To read Deanna's full bio, click here