“Why Don’t He Write?” – Thoughts on Good Client Communication

Ah, year another day has dawned here in the Law Offices of Boozy D. Barrister! The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the coffee is somewhat tolerable, and the “new messages” light on my phone is winking it’s red eye at me as I settle in for the week to begin. And, of course, as the very responsible attorney that sits and writes Lawyers & Liquor, a guiding resource for barely capable mouth breathers and the figurative (and sometimes literal) bed wetting baby lawyers of the legal sphere, I know that those messages must be handled in the correct manner:

Saved for thirty days if the client isn’t in years and panicking and waiting for them to call again, because as every good lawyer will tell you it’s only important if the client calls at least two times.

But you really shouldn’t be doing that shit, and I think you all know that.  First, it’s a damn good way to make sure you spend an entire day in the office doing absolutely nothing except listening to voice mails and making papier mache heads out of those little “while you were out” slips. Second, it’s a damn good way to lose a shit-ton of business in a really goddamn quick manner.  Trust me, I should fucking know, because I’ve been there myself more than once in my career.

Let’s Be Clear: I’m Not A Bad Lawyer, I Just Inherited Bad Habits.

I’ve told you folks many times in the past that I was raised more or less suckling at the teat of my father’s legal practice.  While some kids were playing with toys in the yard, I was camped out under my dad’s desk making paperclip wristbands while Dad yelled at someone on the phone about custody agreements or settlements in personal injury matters. When my classmates went to their parents’ nice corporate offices for “take your child to work day,” I went to the courthouse and sat in chambers with the judge’s sullen looking kid, just…staring at each other across three feet of table and trying to ignore the fact that neither of us really wanted to be here. When other kids would talk about the neat shit they saw on Law & Order, I would roll my eyes and say “Yeah, that’s total bullshit.”

Which is about what I say now, to be honest. Oh fuck, I’m really just a goddamn giant twelve year old, aren’t I?

Anyhow, growing up with a Lawyer Dad is a double-edged sword when you plan to go into the practice of law yourself, because you will at some point try to emulate your father’s practice. And in emulating your father’s practice, you undoubtedly will start to emulate their business practices as well, which is how a lot of my clients when I was first starting out got really used to hearing “Mr. Barrister is in court today” every goddamn time they called the office while I was seated at my desk going through mountains of paperwork.  Because that’s what Dad did – made clients think that he practically lived at the courthouse when the phone rang and after calling out to his secretary “That mouthbreathing dingleberry? I can’t deal with them today. Tell them I’m in court and take a message.”

Sometimes he’d actually get back to them, too!  Dad was diligent.

Dad…also might have broken an ethical rule in doing that.  And I bet you money so have some of you assholes.

It’s Not All About Faith – Communication is an Ethical Duty.

Back when the American Bar Association, you know, those leeches on the underbelly of the justice system with no real authority except that which we give them and break your chains comrades you are the only thing oppressing yourself, drafted the Model Rules of Professional Conduct that have been largely adopted by most state bars, the ABA felt it was important to place attorney contact and communication with the clients on the list. Granted, there are specific instances under Rule 1.4 that define when an attorney must communicate.  Generally, it’s (1) to advise a client of anything you need their consent for and (2) as necessary to keep a client informed and accomplish the goals of representation.  However, there are a lot of situations that aren’t going to meet that test – such as hearing about Bob’s ass boils during office hours.  So you’ll need to know when you have to communicate and, frankly, that’s a situation specific determination.

For instance, a corporate client may not expect to hear from you at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning unless you’re working on something time sensitive and they’ve told you they expect to be able to contact you that weekend.  But what about a custody case? 90% of the issues that need immediate attention in custody matters are going to crop up outside of office hours people, you know, most people don’t exchange the kids at noon on a weekday and those exchanges are when everything seems to fall apart.  So how reasonable is it to tell a client that on weekends you’re entirely unreachable as their ex-spouse dangles a toddler off the edge of a proverbial, and sometimes literal, cliff?  Time’s up, shithead, it isn’t.  Those clients have to have a way to contact you on the weekend and after office hours because such contact, and you being able to address emergencies as they arise, is likely to be a crucial part of your representation that definitely falls under Rule 1.4.

Likewise, even if Rule 1.4 doesn’t catch you, you can always get caught up in the general “diligence” violation of Rule 1.3

Rule 1.3 states, in full, “A lawyer shall act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client.”  That’s the whole damn thing. And in terms of client communication, that would definitely catch the shit that Rule 1.4 doesn’t.  Client calls and simply says “Hey, dipshit the lawyer, call me back” and you don’t respond for two months? That is likely, under no set of circumstances, reasonable diligence or promptness.  Notably, once again, what is “reasonable” or “prompt” in these circumstances is likely to be determined by the circumstances of the representation you’ve undertaken.  So you have to keep that shit in mind.  Because not adequately communicating with your client, in addition to possibly, you know, hurting your fucking case, can actually draw an ethics complaint.

And yet if I go on Twitter right now and post “Tell them I’m in court today,” 100 lawyers will laugh, like, and retweet the shit.  Because it’s a goddamn epidemic of not talking to your clients or shoving one client to the backburner when you have to spend time on the case that’s paying more.

Fuck folks, lawyers have even written goddamn songs about this.

So how, then, when everyone is asking for and in many cases filing writs of replevin on your precious time, can you stay on top of the constantly ringing phone and the Outlook notifications that crowd up the bottom of your screen?

Well, I mean, that’s why I’m here, right?

Fact  Is, We’re Really Goddamn Busy – So Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep.

It’s not like lawyers want to fucking ignore their clients all the time. I mean, if you call and say that you’re looking to pay me, I’m gonna be Johnny on the Fucking Spot with my hand out and a smile on my face. It’s more that there’s a lot of shit that needs my attention in the course of a normal workday (and more now with no support staff) and one of the things I absolutely do not have the time for is sitting on the phone for twenty minutes saying, “Uh-huh” repeatedly as a client calls for the third time that day to tell me the exact shape and consistency of their latest bowel movement because they think they have to call their lawyer everyday. And there’s no nice way to say “Listen, you are not the only client this office serves, and I have other shit that I have to get done, so kindly shut the fuck up and call when it’s important.”

In fact, up until recently I used to make a promise to every client: if you call me or send me an email, you will hear back from me within 24 hours. I will never let something sit more than 24 hours before addressing your concern, because your concern could be really goddamn important. Recently that’s slipped a little, but not a lot because, frankly, for as much as we all talk about hating our damn clients we are in the business of actually taking care of them.  But there’s a definite downside to making a promise like that, and it’s that when you don’t  (or in some cases can’t) keep it, the client is angrier than they would be  normally because you’ve made a guarantee.

What The Client Thinks Is Reasonable Is Often Not What You Think – Set Expectations.

Clients think it’s reasonable to contact their attorney at any hour of the day or night, leading up to several contacts a day and demands that we do something immediately.  You will experience this shit in practice. At some point the phone will ring, you’ll answer, and then immediately begin to roll your eyes because this will be the fifth or sixth time you’ve heard from this exact client that day.  You will be expected to be on the phone constantly with them.  They will call you after every large meal or bowel movement, and sometimes when they’re have both of those things at the same time.

Which, again, means that you have to realistically set an expectation for client contact during the beginning stages of representation.  Even something as simple as “I will always call you when something happens in your matter” and following through on that promise can drastically reduce the number of calls a client makes.  Sending them regular updates is a big deal as well, and I tend to try and reach out to every client at least once a month, even if I don’t hear from them first, to tell them the status on their case and what’s coming up next. Hell, I may even email someone back after office hours if you can believe that shit!  Since I’ve started doing those small measures, I’ve noticed the number of clients calling in regularly to discuss, I don’t know, the weather or who was the better Star Wars  director or some shit, has dropped significantly, and it can all be chalked up to client confidence in representation and communication.  While I may sometimes suck at getting back to callers and clients, they can at least rest easy knowing that I will get back to them since I have in the past.

Calls and Coffee

You’d be surprised how easy it is to actually set aside a little time in the morning to start returning calls and emails from the day before.  You can strut into the office or, in your case, wallow in covered in the shit of attorney life, and pour yourself a cup of coffee, then go back and sit down as you go through messages and emails.  For ten to twenty minutes during the morning you can respond to emails and make outgoing phone calls while you stress about the thousand other things on your desk that day. Frankly, most of the time you’ll end up going to voice mail, but, and here’s the key, you’ve at least tried to call them back.  You leave them a message and all of the sudden you’re the golden pony boy, actually following through on maintaining client contact and sticking that ball right back in their court to contact you again.  Plus, you know, you’ve built a trail of “Wait a second, I called you back already asshole!” when the client inevitably complains that they haven’t heard from you, leaving them chagrined and despondent at having accused their naturally favorite person in the world – the lawyer – of not having communicated effectively with them.

Just fucking kidding.

But it will keep you out of trouble with the disciplinary board.

Conclusions

Look, we’re highly trained professionals – at least those of us who can rub our bar certificate and not watch the ink smear still – and that means we have a natural tendency to be frustrated with our clients when they interrupt our ivory tower internal pontifications over a landlord tenant matter.  But they are our clients, and the entire purpose of our profession is to be their counselor and advocate.  That means, like it or not, we actually have to talk to the assholes every now and then – or at least let them know we received their message and are working on it.

The three tips I gave here today aren’t the end-all-be-all of attorney client communication and how to stay on top of it.  But they sure as shit can help you make a start on climbing the mountains of messages you’ve accumulated. And that’s a good thing, because…you know…I’d like you to stay employed.

Until Friday,

-BB

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