The Importance of Effective Communication (continued)
You must be able to identify difficult clients at an early stage of your relationship and have a plan for dealing with them. Some of the most practical suggestions relate to billing practices, such as prompt, regular billing. Don't let overdue bills slide. Subject to the rules regarding withdrawing services, if required, suspend further work on files when fees are not being paid. Be certain to explain to your client what is happening, and why. Document these communications with your client in writing. It is not sufficient to simply keep a record of the communication in your own file. As always, make sure that you do not violate the provisions of the Code of Conduct as they relate to withdrawal, and if you do withdraw your services, ensure that your client’s interests are protected and that the withdrawal does not put the client in a position of disadvantage or peril.
Poor communication is a recurring theme in complaints to the Office of the Registrar of Complaints of the Law Society. Failing to confirm communications in writing often results in miscommunication, may lead to a deterioration of the lawyer-client relationship and, ultimately to a complaint to the Law Society. The common use of email as a means of communication with its built-in expectation for shortened response times may tax your resources if not managed carefully.
Some difficult clients may be overly demanding with persistent communications, and some may fail to respond to your communications completely, which may leave you to always act the last moment. It is important to include a paragraph in your retainer agreements which outline your communication protocol. The communication protocol may consider such matters as how you will deal with email, telephone calls, how reporting is going to be done and what is reasonable in terms of response times. Such clauses may go a long way in addressing client expectations. See below for an example of a paragraph you may use or adapt in your engagement letters with clients:
Dealing With Each Other
Telephone Calls, Emails & Letters
I will try to return your phone messages or respond to your emails or letters as quickly as possible, but I will not always be able to do so on the same day that you sent them. I am primarily a [courtroom lawyer] OR [transaction lawyer] and am [often in court] OR [attending closings]. When representing a client [in court] OR [in a transaction], I devote my time during that period to that client and have limited ability to return other clients’ phone messages or reply to their emails or letters. When it is your turn to go to court or close your transaction I will be devoting my time to you and your case.
I remind you that I will bill you for all telephone calls, emails and meetings, including any time I may need to prepare for such conversations or review documentation (including emails) before or after our discussions. In order to receive the most value for the services you pay for, I will try to be as efficient as possible. In turn I hope you will limit our conversations in time and subject matter to those topics necessary to resolve your legal problems.
If you have any questions or need to provide me with additional information, you may [write to me] or, [contact me by telephone], if I am not available, please speak to my legal assistant, *, who may be able to assist you or can pass on a detailed message to me.