A typical law firm is not a place where everyone sits around all day drinking coffee and catching up on the latest gossip. More often than not, attorneys and staff are balancing several client matters at any given time. I suspect many feel as if there is never enough time because the workload simply seems to never have an end point. One ramification of this reality can be that attention to certain seemingly minor details goes by the wayside.
The kinds of details that I am referring to are those that are all too easily overlooked. They are the details of presentation and interaction as opposed to relevant legal details. Things like allowing a bill to go to a client that has one or more errors in it, sending a letter to a client with the client’s name misspelled because the name was entered into the firm’s computer database incorrectly, forgetting to return a call because a message slip was out of sight and thus out of mind, or breaking a promise to have work completed by a certain time.
Are these kinds of oversights cause for concern when they happen? Certainly clients understand that attorneys have significant demands placed upon them and I will admit that I am not aware of any malpractice claims that arose out of a misspelled name on an envelope. Although this topic is not about malpractice directly, it is about managing clients relationships which can impact your exposure to a claim. When viewed in this light, I do see these presentation and interaction issues as important.
Consider this: ALPS is a significant consumer of legal services. We would be remiss if we did not review the bills submitted to us for payment and reviewed they are. We have come across billing errors such as overcharges, personal expenses that had no business being submitted, and charges for work done on files that had nothing to do with us. We also find that with some files, bills come in on a very infrequent basis and when they finally do they can be for very large sums of money, much more than we were expecting. When such things happen, our response as the client is often one of concern. If you were in our shoes, wouldn’t you feel the same? The concerns that arise are along the lines of “If the bill contains errors, what does that say about the quality of the legal work being done,” or “If bills are sent infrequently is this because our legal matter is simply being ignored.” Trust can easily come into question and all too readily erode if the attorney or the firm that failed to pay attention doesn’t rectify the situation, and quickly. Further, if left unaddressed, we may eventually take our work elsewhere all because of the apparent inattention to seemingly minor details.
I suspect that many clients respond similarly. A misspelled name in correspondence, a client repeatedly kept waiting, a history of limited bills or bills with errors, a history of having work completed past promised due dates, forgetting a client’s name, repeatedly interrupting client time in order to answer phone calls or to respond to staff all give a clear message, which is the client is not important. It may be that this message is not what is intended, but the message will be received as such regardless. Errors on bills and interruptions during a client meeting happen and, when they do, explanations and apologies can help. Clients are able to forgive and forget. However, with consistent carelessness or personal inattention the client may not be so inclined, and here’s the rub, they may also not let you know what is upsetting them. After all, actions speak louder than words and we often forget that this is a two way street.
I have heard it said that client care, personal attention, and reliability are fundamental to an attorney’s success. This success is not in reference to a legal win but to the business success of establishing and maintaining strong client relationships that foster the creation of trust and confidence in the attorney. The trick is in seeing that the client feels that both their legal matter and their personal self are important to you, their attorney. There is real value in remembering that it is you that is in their employ. Always treat your clients accordingly.
I do understand that finding the time and energy to go that extra step to pay attention to some of these presentation and interaction details can be difficult at times. I struggle with it myself. It is just so easy to let minor things slip a little here and there. The effort not to, however, is going to be worth it over the long haul. View it as a long-term investment in personal and professional relationships that can help grow your practice with additional referral and repeat business. As an aside, it may also reduce your exposure to a future claim and that’s nothing to scoff at.