Skill Sets # 4: Managing the Lawyer-Client Relationship
“Get closer than ever to your customers. So close that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves”. Steve Jobs
One of the most common questions from newer calls regarding practice management is about managing the lawyer-client relationship, an important and let’s acknowledge, crucial skill set. And while the Law Society of Ontario’s Professional Code of Conduct contains specific expectations (rules) regarding maintaining this relationship (see C. 3), doing so is in fact an art invoking context, judgment, social and business acumen, sensibility, and common sense.
Over the course of my own career experiences, now accumulated over 43 years, I have enjoyed the privilege of making very good friends who started out as clients. In the journey associated with doing so, I recognized and attempted to consistently apply the following simple rules:
Rule 1: The lawyer- client relationship is just that, a relationship. Client relationships take time, care, and attention. They do not happen overnight. Their importance to success and career satisfaction cannot be ignored.
Rule 2: Communication is key. The importance of finding the time to communicate frequently with the client cannot be over stressed. In my career, I adopted the practice (and not always successfully) of responding to communications from a client (new or existing) on the day they arrived, if only to acknowledge receipt. And in doing so, I made the point of including a comment particular to the subject file or inquiry that made it clear the reply came from me.
This type of diligent communication is what it takes to build and maintain strong client relationships that can go the distance and beyond. It is accomplished by recognizing opportunities to communicate. I have tried earnestly to follow it in all of my work.
For example, even elements associated with billing offer opportunities to communicate and at the same time soften the business side. The exercise of docketing is often overlooked as a means of communicating with the client through creating dockets which in their commitment to detail and chronology play out the story of what was done, when, and why. And taking the time to accompany an invoice with a short letter offers the opportunity to comment on what has been done and what, in continuing matters, is coming next.
Take every available opportunity to communicate with the client to keep the client feeling informed – and important.
Rule 3: Know the client well. As Steve Jobs indicates, cultivate a sincere interest in everything beneficial to the relationship and the service to be provided. And knowing, of course, is not quite enough. Demonstrate that you know and understand the client, the business, the issue, the environment and whatever else affects the client.
Rule 4: Maintain confidence and protect the associated privilege. Treat the solicitor-client relationship as a “specially protected zone” (Canada (Attorney General) v. Federation of Law Societies of Canada, SCC).
Rule 5: Be frank and informative in a sensitive, sensible way. All lawyers, whether new to the practice or otherwise, must continually be aware that they are materially intervening in the lives of their clients. To most clients lawyers still carry the mystique of knowing more than others; still speak a foreign language that requires translation; are still surrounded by rules and practices beyond the comprehension of the average client (or any client), and appear enmeshed in systems that (all efforts to the contrary acknowledged) remain fundamentally unapproachable.
When considering the subtlety of lawyer-client relationships, I like to reflect on what Mahatma Gandhi reportedly said in a speech in South Africa in 1890: “A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him.” While I appreciate the wisdom of this in business terms, the practice of law is more than a business, it is a profession. In our lines of service, it is important to remember that the client is also very much dependent on us. We are presented not with a file, but with a need which we are required to approach frankly and informatively.
Take due care therefore to observe Rule 3.2 -1 of the above-mentioned Rules of Professional Conduct [1.1]: “A lawyer has a duty of candour with the client on matters relevant to the retainer. This arises out of the rules and the lawyer’s fiduciary obligations to the client. The duty of candour requires a lawyer to inform the client of information known to the lawyer that may affect the interests of the client in the matter” (my emphasis). If you miss a point or run into difficulty, embrace and disclose it, do what you can reasonably do in every instance to remediate the issue, get advice from others, and carry on.
Rule 6: Provide consistent and understandable advice. Speak plainly. Be prepared.
Rule 7: Docket both fairly and informatively. Bill responsibly. Collect understandably.
Now back to Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs has also said that in life “you have to trust in something”. The very best rule in managing client relationships is to trust in yourself.