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Protect your law practice from difficult clients

Keeping control of clients who become difficult to manage — and making sure you filter out the not-so-good clients in the first place — are essential to maintaining a successful law practice and holding onto your sanity.

This can be especially important in family law matters, where emotions tend to run high. But I’ve found that what I’ve learned from family law also applies in other practice areas.

Here are five “rules of engagement” to help you protect your practice and yourself from difficult clients:

1) Choose your clients carefully.

When business slows, client standards tend to soften, and attorneys find themselves working too hard, having too many problematic clients and making less money.

When clients don’t plan to pay, they don’t worry about whether they are taking too much of your time. And they steal time that would be better spent on marketing and other important activities. That creates a vicious cycle: Revenues are down, so lawyers accept even more “D” clients who steal more time.

When selecting clients, avoid anyone who has fired other attorneys. Yes, I know there are always exceptions. But odds are you’ll be next. So don’t play the odds.

Second, pass on any client who wants a deal on your retainer or who wants to pay it in several payments. Odds are (there are those odds again) that’s all you’ll get.

Third, be vigilant with anyone who won’t look you in the eye. That usually means the client is lying or hiding something.

2) Set the rules of engagement.

Many clients have never worked with an attorney — or at least with you — which means they have no clear picture of how the two of you will work together. That creates two problems. First, if you don’t explain the parameters of how you will interact in detail, the clients will make it up for themselves. Second, not knowing what to expect creates fear, which often leads to a lack of trust.

I suggest that every engagement begin with an “integrity agreement” between the client and the attorney. This document is completely separate from the retainer agreement. It lays out the roles and responsibilities of both the attorney and client, and it sets the stage for a better working relationship. The attorney discusses each point, both parties sign it and the client keeps the original.

One benefit is the creation of a written agreement the attorney can refer to later. When a client becomes difficult or emotional or angry, and especially when he has not paid your bill, the lawyer can remind the client of the agreed-on roles and responsibilities outlined in the initial “integrity discussion.” That’s much more effective than simply “reading them the riot act” and trying to pry them off the ceiling.

The integrity agreement begins with a statement of mutual responsibility, such as:

“The purpose of hiring an attorney is to gain the support of a professional who has the ability and experience to guide you through the legal process toward the optimum outcome. The attorney cannot make key decisions without consultation and direction from the client. Therefore, both the attorney and client must be committed to full participation in the matter.”

The document might also state that the attorney will:

* act diligently at all times;


* respond within a certain number of hours to phone calls and inquiries;

* seek the client’s direction and thoughts on decisions at all key points;

* manage the client’s matter with the goal of obtaining the desired outcome; and

* ensure that he and his staff are reasonably available during office hours to provide advice and consultation, and that they interact in an empathetic and responsive manner.

Another important statement that should be included is:

“The attorney’s responsibility is to apply his or her legal skills in an objective, practical and dispassionate manner at all times. When the attorney believes the client is in a mental state that compromises his or her decision-making ability and threatens the client’s long-term interests, the attorney has an ethical responsibility to refer the client to a qualified mental health professional.”

When a client has become overwrought, the attorney can now say, “Remember our discussion? As part of my responsibility to you, I have to refer you to someone who can help you.”

The client portion of the agreement should state that the client will:

* respond promptly to attorney requests for information, decisions and direction;

* attend all appointments and meetings as requested;

* refrain from behavior that can compromise outcomes when meeting with the attorney, opposing counsel or other parties;

* provide prompt payment for attorney services; and

* refrain from contacting the attorney after-hours unless there is an emergency.

The agreement should also include a specific definition of what constitutes an emergency.

3) Draw a road map.

Develop a simple step-by-step flow chart of the steps a typical matter, such as a divorce, will go through. Print out the chart in a distinctive color. Then sit with the client, red pen in hand, and walk him through it, jotting down approximate timelines. It doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to give the client some understanding of what lies ahead. When the client has seen and heard the plan, he is more likely to remember it. Then put the chart in the client’s folder for future reference.

4) Educate your clients.

Fifteen extra minutes spent educating a client and setting standards for working together can save countless hours of frustration and lots of uncollected invoices.

There are two parts to client education. The first is a relatively simple “how to and whom to contact” list that sets down the following in writing:

* whom to call for what;

* what information to leave when leaving a message;

* how calls are handled and returned;

* the attorney’s office hours;

* the hours the attorney is normally available and not available for meetings or calls;

* the firm’s contact information, such as address, phone number, email address, fax number, etc.;

* the attorney’s emergency phone number and how emergency calls are handled; and

* the definition of an emergency.

The second part of educating clients involves specific details on charges and billing. That list should include such items as:

* how retainers are managed and accounted for;

* billing rates for various staff;

* how specific tasks or steps may be billed;

* what additional costs beyond hourly charges may appear on the bill;

* when bills are issued and when payment is expected;

* when payments are considered overdue and what steps the firm may take in such cases; and

* a request for the client’s permission to withdraw in the event of non-payment.

While the courts often won’t allow you to withdraw, the client probably doesn’t know that. Remembering this advance warning may spur a client to pay. And if it doesn’t, even if the court won’t let you withdraw, you can still file the request. A threat to do so — or, as a final step, a copy of the actual request to the client — may spur payment.

5) Follow your own rules.

Once you’ve set the rules of the engagement, keep your word. If you tell a client the rules and then don’t follow them yourself, he will learn you weren’t serious about them. Most important are the rules about finances. Make sure clients don’t learn that you’ll continue to work even when they’re not paying.

Start your client relationships right and keep them on track, and you’ll be far happier — and better paid.

Dustin Cole, president of Attorneys Master Class, is a master practice advisor who helps attorneys build more profitable, enjoyable practices and create financially successful retirement and transition plans. His blog, www.resipsalawyer.com, offers tips on a wide range of practice management and marketing issues. He can be contacted at dustin@attorneysmasterclass.com.


About Dustin A. Cole