Offices in Ottawa and Perth
(613) 722-1500

CONTACT US (613) 722-1500

Skill Sets # 4: Managing the Lawyer-Client Relationship

Skill Sets # 4: Managing the Lawyer-Client Relationship

By:

Posted January 16, 2020

“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.

This blog post was written by K. Scott McLean, General Counsel and Director of Practice Development.  He can be reached at (613) 369-0375 or at scott.mclean@mannlawyers.com.

 

 

More Resources

Blog |
Wills, Trusts and Estates, Business Law, Real Estate
By: 

Posted May 28, 2024

The recent announcement from the Federal Government regarding an increase in the capital gains inclusion rate for individuals, trusts, and corporations has sparked significant discussion.[...]
Blog |
Family Law
By: 
When couples part ways, the shared ownership of a matrimonial home often becomes a contentious issue. In Ontario, the law recognizes two forms of co-ownership:[...]
Blog |
Real Estate
By: 
If you are purchasing a home in Ontario, you likely know that you should retain a real estate lawyer to close the transaction for you.[...]
Blog |
Wills, Trusts and Estates
By: 

Posted May 14, 2024

This is often a question that arises when someone dies with debts and the estate trustees  are at a loss as to what to do[...]
Blog |
Business Law
By: 

Posted May 9, 2024

Every story has to start somewhere. When buying or selling a business, the journey usually begins with a well drafted letter of intent. A letter of[...]
Blog |
Wills, Trusts and Estates
By: 

Posted April 23, 2024

In this day and age, social media is at the forefront of everything – it’s where people obtain news, it’s where people spend numerous hours[...]
K. Scott McLean

K. Scott McLean

After 43 years of commercial and related litigation experience, I joined Mann Lawyers in 2020 as General Counsel and Director of Practice Management.  While I continue to be involved in complex commercial disputes, providing advocacy support and strategic advice, I am predominantly involved in supporting the development of our lawyers and their practices, including the recruitment and retention of associates, mentorship in enabling our associates to reach their professional goals, and the provision of structured training programs.  In these roles I enjoy the opportunity to reflect and write, under the heading Practice Management, on the importance of supporting junior lawyers. After completing an honours degree at Carleton University in 1973, I completed my law degree at Windsor Law School in 1975 and an M.A. in political studies in 1976.  I was admitted to the Ontario Bar in 1977.  Since 1977, I have appeared at all trial, judicial review and appellate... Read More

Read More About K. Scott McLean

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

"*" indicates required fields

Name*
Consent*
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.