When a client expects one result but gets another it’s not uncommon for a client to sue and/or allege attorney malpractice. Communication starts at the initial client engagement by explaining the legal services that are being provided to the client and never leaving those services open to interpretation.
Properly set client expectations at the beginning of the attorney/client engagement. By using the following tips become a better communicator with your clients:
- Learn to say ‘No’: If client expectations are unrealistic at the beginning of the engagement, they are likely to be unrealistic at the completion of the engagement. Part of being a good communicator is listening to your client’s expectations.
- Have an effective client engagement/disengagement letter process: The client engagement letter needs to state precisely what services you will and will not provide, along with expected deadlines and costs. Discuss the engagement letter with the client so they understand before signing. When your legal services come to a close, make sure to send out a disengagement letter closing the attorney/client relationship. (Your local bar is a good source for boiler plate engagement/disengagement letters.)
- Keep an open line of communication: Even if a client is bad at staying in touch, it’s important that you continue to communicate. For long running cases, make sure that you continue to communicate in the manner that the client prefers. If you need answers to questions, and do not receive a response to an e-mail, don’t assume that the client is ignoring you, (s)he may never have gotten your e-mail. E-mails get caught in spam filters all the time. If the client does not respond to the e-mail. Pick up the phone. Continuous communication helps prevent misunderstandings. Make sure that you thoroughly document all client communications.
- Don’t hide undesirable information: Mistakes happen and things go wrong. It’s part of life. But instead of trying to hide a missed deadline or bad result from a client, it’s better to explain the problem once it’s noticed. (Also likely required by rules for professional conduct.) Bad news should be delivered in person. If not possible, then by phone. If possible have a plan to address this issue minimizing the damage.
- Get attorney malpractice insurance: Even the best attorneys can run into problems and errors do happen. Sometimes even with the best communication skills and the best possible result for your client will get you sued. It’s highly recommended that you protect your law practice and your personal assets with attorney malpractice insurance.
- If you get sued: Notify your malpractice insurer as soon as practical. Many attorney malpractice insurance policies have deadlines and spell out exactly how claims are to be reported. Make sure to follow those guidelines. Consult your agent if you have any questions on claims reporting.