Three keys to a successful attorney-client relationship.

Whether you are seasoned attorney who has represented hundreds of clients, or you are a new client who is hiring an attorney for the first time, the beginning stage of an attorney-client relationship will most likely involve a “getting to know you” period.

The period may be very intense if there is emergency litigation right out of the gate. Or there may be a lengthy consultation period leading up to the engagement where both sides are deciding whether the potential relationship is a good fit. In either case, there are several things that both sides can do to ensure that the relationship is solid, and therefore, the representation meets expectations right out of the gate.

1. Define the best method of communication.
Email is generally the preferred method of communication among attorneys. It allows them to transfer documents, engage in conversations regarding advice, and answer quick questions when their schedules permit, and without the hassle of having to always schedule follow up phone calls. However, as wonderful as email is, it can also be impersonal, unintentionally tone deaf, and at times abrupt. We have all been on the receiving end of an email which seemed rude, and the sender was writing it on the fly and had no idea that it would be interpreted in a particular way.

If a client does not regularly communicate by email (i.e., they are not in the business world), receiving legal advice over email may seem daunting to them. Additionally, if the client is a company, general counsel, although used to fielding hundreds of emails each day, may have a different set of standards for its outside counsel’s communications.

Set expectations at the beginning of the engagement regarding how the client wants to communicate with you, and how they want to receive information. Every situation is different so the attorney may need to accommodate different communication styles for different clients.

I have that found most clients welcome email in some form, but many have different expectations on how significant case information will be conveyed. Strategy decisions are often most efficient over the phone where different scenarios can be discussed and options weighed. It may be wise to then send a follow up email confirming the decision made in the phone call. Case rulings or settlement offers, while often actually transmitted over email, sometimes need to be previewed with a phone call depending on the client.

No method of communication is “better.” Outlining communication expectations at the beginning of the engagement ensures that everyone knows the best protocols going forward.

2. Set expectations with respect to billing.
If this hasn’t already been discussed in your initial consultation and tendered in your engagement agreement (which I strongly recommend that it is!), it is best to immediately communicate in writing with the new client the expectations regarding invoice payment. If you bill on a monthly basis, let the client know that they will be receiving a bill on or about a certain day every month and the balance needs to be paid within a certain amount of days.

Sticking with a strong invoicing schedule and setting expectations that the bill needs to be paid upon receipt sends a message to the client that you are working for a fee and the fee needs to be paid timely. Clients may test you to see if you will really make them pay every month. Or some clients get in a habit of paying their bills late and yours will fall into that same habit. By setting an expectation with your client and sticking with it, you will likely have to have less difficult conversations regarding large receivables that mount over months and months of unpaid work.

3. Mutual understanding of the client’s goals.
By the time you are engaged, you will understand why you are being hired. If you are a medical malpractice attorney, you know that you were sought out by a patient who feels he or she was injured by a healthcare professional. If you are a corporate attorney and your client is looking to acquire a new business, you understand that your role is to negotiate the acquisition of the company and prepare the appropriate documents to formalize the deal. You have been hired for your area of expertise and desired end result is clearly defined.

But how will you, as the captain of the ship, deliver those results? There are also several roads which will lead to that ultimate destination. As a divorce attorney, when a client hires me, I know that at the end of the day they want to be divorced. But how they get there is why they hire me and why they want to work with me. It is important to understand what the clients’ goals are and how they want to arrive at their ultimate destination. There are several ways to achieve an end result, but the processes can be radically different. A mutual understanding of goals is critical to building a solid relationship and preventing major miscommunications down the line.

It is also important to make sure that the client knows what he or she wants. Someone may end up in our office because of stressful situation and they have no idea who to handle it. They are looking for us to give them guidance on how to fix a very difficult problem. Giving the client space to think about all of the options available to them may be necessary so a proper strategy can be formed. It can be very difficult to represent a client who does not know what they want, or someone who only knows what they do not want. In some cases, gently pointing out that part of the issue may be that the client doesn’t know what they really want may be necessary in order to move forward.

At the end of the day, the attorney-client relationship is very personal – even with a corporate client. While balance sheets and budgets may dictate what counsel is hired for what engagements, people hire people. The personal understanding of a client’s goals, how they want to communicate on a daily basis with respect to those goals, and how they plan to pay for such representation, are the solid foundations for maintaining a strong and long-term relationship.