The attorney-client relationship is the most important aspect of any case. Unfortunately, this is probably one of the areas most ignored by attorneys and staff. A client wants to feel welcome when visiting your office. The client's legal experience with your office should be as pleasant as possible, but this is not often the case. Maintaining good attorney-client relationships will aid in preventing a malpractice claim from being asserted against you. A client who is satisfied with you and your work will be more understanding and willing to cooperate with you if you commit an error.
Here are a few ideas which will promote good client relations:
- Put the terms of the attorney/client relationship in writing. State your specific responsibilities as well as the activities which you will not be performing for the client. Malpractice claims often involve a misunderstanding as to the attorney's responsibilities.
- Set your fee (in writing) as early as possible. Have the client sign the fee agreement or engagement letter and keep a copy in the file. Answer any questions the client may have. Make sure he/she understands the arrangement completely.
- Do not create unjustified or unrealistic expectations for the client. Do not give the client false hopes by blowing your own horn. Don't make the case sound easier than it is. Many attorneys give unrealistic expectations to their clients by making such statements as "Don't worry about a thing. I've got everything under control." or "This type of case comes up all the time. It shouldn't be a problem."
- Keep the client informed. Send the client copies of correspondence and/or pleadings. He/she may not understand them, but will be happy that you sent them anyway. Clients usually like to be updated as to the status of their case. If the case is to remain dormant for quite some time you may want to notify the client and explain the reason for the delay.
- Return phone calls promptly. There is nothing more aggravating than waiting for an attorney, or anyone else for that matter, to return a phone call. If you are unable to return the call right away, have a secretary or paralegal contact the client and explain the reason for your not being able to return the call yourself and ask if there is anything they can do to assist the client or take a message so that you can take whatever action is necessary.
- Decisions must be made by the client. This is the client's case and all decisions must be made by him/her. Do not assume that you have authority to make a decision without first consulting the client. Make sure you give the client all of the necessary information so that the client can make an informed decision. Put all decisions made in writing, especially if the client insists on making a decision contrary to what you have suggested. If the client carries total responsibility for the decisions made, he/she cannot later blame you for having made the wrong decision if your files are properly documented.
- Employ proper office personnel. Your employees have a great deal of contact with your clients. Office personnel should be courteous and understanding to the client's situation. Make sure your staff is capable of producing quality as well as quantity work.
- Confidentiality. Office personnel is held to the same strict code of client confidentiality as attorneys. Advise your staff of their responsibility to maintain confidentiality. Many firms have staff sign a statement which explains the need for confidentiality so that all staff is aware of its importance (see the Staff Confidentiality section on the next page).
Don't take phone calls when a client is in your office. The client will feel that you will probably discuss his/her case in front of other clients as well. Don't leave client files out on your desk for other clients to see. This goes for staff members as well. Treat each case with the greatest of confidentiality.
- Personal involvements. Your firm should make it a general practice never to become involved personally with a client. If you are a party in a business venture, suggest that the business use an uninvolved attorney to represent its legal interest. If you attempt to be a partner in a business as well as serve as legal counsel, when things go wrong the other partners will turn to you to make them whole. Do not ask clients to invest in your personal ventures or those of other clients.
- Stay in your own back yard. Do not accept a case that is outside your area of expertise. Do not accept a case for a friend if his/her case involves an area of law in which you do not normally practice. You should refer the matter to another attorney who regularly practices in that area of law. If you feel you must handle a case outside of your expertise, be willing to either hire co-counsel (an attorney who is more knowledgeable in the area) or spend the additional time required to do the necessary research. Inexperience is no defense to a charge that you acted below the accepted standard of care. No matter what your experience, you will be held to the standard of attorneys who practice regularly in a given field.
- Choose your clients carefully. Take a good look at your potential client and his/her case before accepting it. Do not accept the client who:
- Expects unrealistic results
- Is out for revenge, is trying to defend a principle or is in too much of a hurry
- Has a case outside your area of expertise.
- Has a case that is too large for your practice
- Has a case that belongs in Small Claims Court
- Wants to use your staff as their own
- Wants to use your Trust Account as a banking service
- Has already been to several attorneys
- Bad-mouths previous attorneys
- Asks for a loan against the case
Loose lips sink ships - and might well lead to ethical and malpractice problems.
Every member of a law firm, from the senior partner to the file clerk, is under a strict obligation to protect the privacy and secrets of clients. Disclosure of a client confidence is one of the most serious errors you can make. Penalties could include immediate termination of employment or other disciplinary action.
The duty of client confidentiality is broad. It is not limited merely to what clients tell you. It also precludes unauthorized discussions of case strategy or evidence.
The law office is an exciting place. You're privy to information others don't have. You learn interesting things about prominent people. Resist the temptation to share this news with outsiders, including friends and family.
Following are some points to remember about client confidentiality:
Confidentiality Forms A & B
- Don't discuss business outside the office.
- Never discuss one client's business with another client.
- Beware water cooler conversations. Can your chatter be overheard by other clients in the lobby? How about the lawyer waiting for a deposition to begin?
- Don't talk to Oprah or Geraldo. Or the local newspaper or radio station. Decline to answer if a reporter calls to ask if your firm is representing a particular person. Decisions about what to say to the press should be made by the lawyer.
- Remember the law is a profession, not merely a business. Clients pay good money for help with their problems. They deserve respect for their privacy.
- Be especially cautious in office sharing arrangements. Beware "gossip" with employees of other firms. Keep case files segregated.
- Remember that your duty of confidentiality continues even after the case is closed. It also continues after you leave the firm.
- Be wary when clients or strangers want to use your office or an attorney's office to make a few telephone calls. Make sure no client files or documents are lying around.
- Never release information to callers such as a client's accountant or an insurance adjuster without authorization.
- Don't give out legal advice.
- Be careful when disposing of confidential papers including rough drafts or duplicates. Use shredders or other secure disposal methods for sensitive material.
- Never forget that the attorney-client relationship is built on mutual trust and confidence. Clients come to you expecting a form of sanctuary. You must honor that.
- A good idea is for firms to require all employees to sign confidentiality forms, which are placed in personnel files. A blank copy of the form should be included in the office manual. Following are two samples: