Misunderstandings can kill an attorney-client relationship. That attorney you worked so hard to attract? Gone.
A new attorney client asked my company to create a detailed chronology of all the events associated with a specific time frame. When he got a 30-page report and an invoice for $3,000, he said he’d thought he would get a summary five or six pages long.
I looked at my notes of our initial call, confused about how our understanding could have been so different. I quoted him back what he asked for. "No, that's not what I wanted", he told me.
In order to get paid at all, I had to take some hours off the bill. I did suggest that the next time we worked together, I’d appreciate an example of the kind of summary he was looking for. However, he didn’t become a return client.
Ask Ahead of Time
You could say (and I did) that the client should have been more specific when he gave us the work. However, being right didn’t recover the cost of the time we spent on the chronology.
Because he was a new client, I would have better served my company’s interests by asking him exactly what he wanted. I could have (and should have) updated him on our progress when I realized how long it was taking to extract the information he needed. And asked him If he wanted this level of detail.
What happened in this case is that he had a limited understanding of the events described In the medical record. He thought it was a simple case. Our review of the medical records proved otherwise.
Asking Is Never Wrong
But sometimes asking feels wrong. There are many reasons for this.
Do you think asking will make you look stupid and incompetent? The person who believes this (It may not be you) thinks:
- “He’s a new client.”
- “I need to prove that I know what I’m doing.”
- “If I ask questions, I’ll look unsure. I have no track record with this guy, and he might lose confidence in me.”
- “My client is a busy person. He doesn’t want to take the time to answer my questions.”
Turn It Around for a Positive Attorney-Client Relationship
If he’s a new client, you can impress him with your attention to detail. Before you call the client, go over the notes of your intake call and look for anything that’s unclear or that could be misinterpreted. Make a list.
When you call, say to him, “I want to make sure we give you exactly what you want and expect. Because of that, I’d like to go over your request and let’s make sure we understand your needs and can fulfill them.” Your goal Is to develop a strong attorney-client relationship, so you'll win a satisfied client with repeat business.
Use a Positive Tone
This is very important. Don’t sound apologetic. Don’t say, “I hate to bother you.” If anything, make it sound like you’re calling so that you can perform a valuable service for him.
Never suggest in any way that his instructions were unclear or confusing. Say that you want to clarify what he wrote or said.
If you need clarification on more than one point, thank him for each clarification. At the end of your conversation, say that you appreciate his taking the time to talk with you. Attorneys are busy, with dozens of items calling for their attention.
I grant that you will occasionally run into attorneys who are abrupt. They say things like, “What I wrote was perfectly clear. I don’t know why you don’t understand it.”
I recommend saying, “I find that with new clients it’s always preferable to go over instructions so that we have a result that makes everyone happy.” Emphasize the word, happy.
At the same time, be honest. This guy has earned one strike. He may not be a client with whom you want to do repeat business—but don’t give him the chance to complain about you.
On the brighter side, a majority of clients will appreciate your attention to detail and thank you for it. The chances are good that they’ll recommend you.
That makes asking questions well worth it."
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