Regardless of where you practice civil litigation (big firm vs. small firm vs. solo practitioner), your career will likely involve the representation of three distinct types of clients:
When it comes to interacting with these clients, each will necessarily require a different level of service and will expect different things from you and your firm.
In this three-part series, we dive into some of the best practices for how you can keep each client-type happy.
After all, if you can do that, your bills will be paid and the referrals from those happy clients will keep pouring in.
Sounds great, doesn’t it?
Let’s take a look at how you can make that happen.
Today, we start with a discussion of individual clients.
Typically, these are regular folks who are experiencing some sort of disagreement with another. It could be a property-line dispute, a car accident case, or some sort of malpractice action.
In any event, these clients tend to have one thing in common: they are completely unfamiliar with the legal system. Because of that, they likely need more hand-holding than other clients.
Here’s what we suggest.
Remember your clients’ perspective
After a few years of litigation practice, the process becomes second nature to most legal professionals.
Pleadings are filed, discovery is initiated, posturing occurs between lawyers. Eventually, hearings are scheduled and a trial date is set. All the while, your legal team keeps chugging along and doing their jobs. That’s what the client hired you to do, after all.
Keep in mind, however, that every single step in this process is new and terrifying to the individual client.
Their first impression of lawyers in general is probably not favorable.
The allegations in the complaint or other pleadings may seem outrageous to them.
They may bristle at the thought of responding to interrogatories or producing documents.
They are often completely unprepared for how to act in a deposition – even after you’ve prepared them for it.
Your clients’ fears around this process are real. In fact, litigation stress is recognized as a distinct irritant in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Often, litigation can increase feelings of shame, embarrassment, anxiety, and depression.
Talk to your individual clients about these things.
Perhaps more importantly, listen to them and try to provide a sense of calm in this new and tumultuous world they find themselves in.
Your demeanor, work ethic, and professionalism can alleviate their stress, thus leading to happier, healthier clients.
Keep the client up to date meaningfully
Through the years, I’ve heard dozens of horror stories from friends and acquaintances about their experiences with lawyers.
There’s the lawyer who never communicates anything about the case to the client.
Then there’s the lawyer that sends a copy of every piece of paper generated in the case…but doesn’t explain any of it.
And, of course, there’s the lawyer whose mannerisms and communication style are so abrupt as to scare the client away from asking questions or stating opinions about the direction of the case.
Obviously, none of those tactics breed happy clients.
If you’re unsure of how much information to share with your client, consider turning to the comments of ABA Rule of Professional Conduct 1.4 on Communication. Comment (5) gives particularly useful guidance in this regard:
The client should have sufficient information to participate intelligently in decisions concerning the objectives of the representation and the means by which they are to be pursued.
What this means in the real world is that you not only need to tell your client what’s going on in their case, but you also need to explain things to them so that they can help you set the course of the litigation.
Sure, this level of service takes time, but there are strategies for making that time. Read on.
Schedule structured check-ins
If you’ve ever represented individual clients, you know that many of them want to obsess about their case and talk about it at all hours of the day and night.
Unfortunately, you don’t have time to join them in that obsession.
So, how do you reach a happy medium that keeps clients happy but allows you to do other things?
One good way to do it is to make (and keep) a communication plan.
For example, schedule a weekly phone call with your individual clients.
Encourage them to write down any questions that come to mind between those regular check-ins. Let them know that if something important happens before the next scheduled call, you’ll contact them immediately.
On the call, review the things you’re going to need them to do in the coming week (creating draft interrogatory responses, for example). Talk to them about how the case is going, and give them plenty of time to ask questions and thoroughly discuss anything that they need to.
Setting client expectations around communication and case progress will ease some of their stress and keep individual clients happier overall.
Offer alternate billing arrangements
Of course, one of the greatest stressors for the individual legal client is figuring out how they’re going to pay for your services.
They know they need your guidance, but have probably read terrifying articles about lawyers charging over $1,000 per hour. Unless your individual clients have names like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, you need to put those fears to rest quickly.
One of the best ways to do this is to offer (and explain) alternate billing arrangements to your clients.
There are lots of options these days: bundled services, flat fee arrangements, contingency fee agreements and the like. Whatever you do, just make sure you explain the arrangement thoroughly and ensure that your clients have a comfort level with the true anticipated costs of litigation before you get started.
Keeping your clients happy is worth the effort
Working with individual clients is as fun as it is tricky.
These are some of the most passionate clients you’ll ever come across, but most desperately need your calm leadership throughout the litigation process. If you can provide that, you’ll have more than your share of happy clients.
These happy clients are also great referral engines. People expect to have a negative experience with a lawyer, so when working with you turns out to be pleasant, they’re likely to talk about it.
Plus, happy clients are easier to work with. You’ll probably still have to remind them to complete their tasks, but with your stronger relationship, you’ll find it much easier.
Up next: read about keeping your small business clients happy.