Law Office Management
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A Rose By Any Other Name: Characteristics of an Efficient Practice, Part Four

By Patricia Yevics
Director, Law Office Management
Maryland State Bar Association, Inc.

Clients: It's All About Them

Last month we talked very briefly about which clients NOT to choose and how to determine your ideal client. This month we will talk about client relations - how to treat them well when they come to you and how to keep them happy.

Clients are what our practices are all about. It is why we do what we do. For the sake of argument, I am assuming that all reading this article practice law because they want to help their clients fight the good fight and get justice. We want to help our clients navigate the legal system and be treated fairly and make the right decisions. However we also want our clients to be satisfied so 1) they will pay us for our services, 2) they will refer us new business. It is possible to have a client that is satisfied with their service and treatment despite the actual outcome of their case.

The first thing all firms must do is to define Quality Client Service. This is how ALL clients are to be treated at all times. If you have a small firm, you could consider discussing how to define Quality Client Service with everyone in the office. You could do this at lunch or before the start of the day.

If you choose not to include everyone in your office in "defining" Quality Client Service, once you do decide what it means, it must be written down, distributed and discussed with everyone in the office. I also recommend that you distribute to family members and encourage everyone in your office to show it to family members. As solo and small firm practitioners we pride ourselves on our "personal service." It is critical that everyone (and I mean everyone) in your firm buys into your definition of quality client service.

I also suggest that you have a sign or plaque made and hung in your office to let clients know what level of service they should expect. You might also want to include a sheet with your definition with all promotional materials and with new client information.

I am going to list some items to consider for your definition of Quality Client Service. Many of the items seem simple but I have been in many offices where these common sense items are not followed by firms that think they treat their clients well.

Having a high standard for greeting clients when they call or when they visit

Calling clients by name

Offering clients refreshments if they visit

Keeping reception area tidy

Making certain staff do not talk about office matters while clients waiting (This is a personal pet peeve of mine. I am appalled at the way some staff will discuss office or personal matters while clients are in the waiting areas.)

Make certain clients do not have to wait more than a few minutes to see you. If something comes up that will cause the client to wait, either send your secretary to let the client know or even better, go out to waiting room and tell the client you will be a few minutes late and that you apologize.

Greet your clients personally.

If this is going to be a long term relationship, introduce the client to your secretary and others in your office if necessary.

When meeting with a client, keep interruptions to an absolute minimum. If you know that you may need to be interrupted, let the client know in advance. Unless it is an emergency, do not take other calls.

If your office is not neat, meet with client in the conference room. If you do meet with the client, have only client's file on your desk. I recently was in a lawyer's office and on top of my file was a coversheet from his secretary that listed the name of the client, the date and time of the meeting, the purpose of the meeting and the papers that we needed to sign.

Return all phone calls as soon as possible but certainly within 24 hours. If you have voice mail, use it to leave detailed messages if you are out of the office. If you have e-mail, use the Out of Office Assistant to let clients and others know you may be away from your desk for a period of time. One of the biggest complaints we hear from the public is that they cannot get a call back from their lawyer. If you cannot return the call, have your secretary call. If you do not have any news to report, call anyway, If you have promised something that you cannot deliver, call, apologize and come to workable solution.

Keep clients informed. Send clients all correspondence related to their case. If possible, provide the client with a folder for their papers. You should also include information about how and when to contact you if there is an emergency. I know of one criminal law and family law practitioner (what a combination) who lets his clients know what is meant by an emergency. This helps both the lawyer and the client.

You should always confirm all major decisions with the client with a follow-up letter. In addition, if a client refuses to follow your advice, this should also be documented with a letter to the client and copy put in the client folder.

When meeting with a client for the first time, there should be a detailed discussion about fees. You should have you billing and payment policy available to discuss with the client. If the fee agreement is not available at the first meeting, then it should be sent to the client within 24 hours. If it is available at the first meeting, discuss it with the client and have the client sign it if you are comfortable that the client understands the agreement. If not tell the client to take it home, read it and send it back in an envelope that you provide. If it is signed at the first meeting, have a copy made for the client's file.

Once a client has been accepted by the firm, all clients should have a client file made. It should include a client intake sheet that obtains necessary information. Different practices will include different types of information but there are some that should be included for all clients. That information includes (but is not limited to):

Name, Address, Phone, Fax, Email, Social Security number, Spouse, children, other relatives if necessary.

In addition, there will be other information that will be needed for conflict of interest checks. Information will vary depending upon the matter. 

(Note: If a conflict does arise, do you have written clearance from the client of any conflicts which are discovered?)

.You should send all new clients a welcome letter that includes statement of confidentiality (for a sample, please go to the MSBA website at http://www.msba.org/
departments/loma/articles/characteristics/intake.htm
) details regarding the scope of your representation, reminders that no specific outcome was promised, who to contact in the firm with a problem and statement that you appreciate their business.

Always keep in mind that it costs seven times more to get a new client than it does to keep a current client and get referrals from that client. In addition, unhappy clients are much more likely to tell others about their dissatisfaction. The goal is to 1) choose clients wisely, 2) start the new client process smoothly and 3) continue to keep the client satisfied.


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