We are all familiar with the old cliché: Everyone hates lawyers until they need one. In truth, most attorney-client relationships fall into the love-hate category. Clashing egos, arrogant attitudes, fee misunderstandings, communication problems, unpredictable results – the list of pitfalls that can hinder or destroy the relationship is seemingly endless. I don’t have the secret key to solving these ongoing problems, but here are four things that should help to soothe the sore spots.
The attorney and client need to pay attention to each other. That means putting one’s mouth in park and listening. It means responding promptly to phone calls, emails, texts, or letters. Counsel need to try to really understand the nature of client issues and relate to them on a personal level, without presuming they know what clients need and feel. Clients need to do their best to cooperate with counsel, including the provision of requested information and documents in a timely manner. Both parties need to make each other a priority!
The attorney and client need to respect each other. They need to work together as a team of equals. Counsel need to formulate plans designed to achieve client-centered goals, not plans that provide counsel with the most satisfaction – whether it’s ego, money, publicity, or something else. Clients need to listen to the advice of counsel. Clients must provide substantial input into any decisions that affect them. But clients need to check their egos at the door, and understand that although they may be intelligent and sophisticated, they don’t have an attorney’s experience and understanding of the law. Both parties need to respect what each of them brings to the table!
The attorney and client need to be honest with each other. Counsel need to speak to clients in a simple, direct, and frank manner. Answer questions. Admit personal limitations. Point out trouble spots in the case. And if a mistake is made, don’t try to hide it or justify it – admit it, fix it as best you can, and apologize for it! As for clients, they need to tell counsel the whole truth, the good, the bad, and the ugly – in full technicolor detail, and as soon as possible. Attorneys can’t fully protect client interests without knowing what issues exist. The meeting with counsel is not a public relations event. Let all of the skeletons out of the closet so that they don’t haunt you later!
The attorney and client need to be fair with each other. Counsel need to be acutely aware of their fees and the impact they will have on clients. That includes being careful to ensure that billed activities are not only performed efficiently, but also that they provide real value in a manner necessary to achieve client goals. Clients, however, need to be realistic – it’s unfair to expect to get quality representation for a bargain basement price. Similarly, it’s unfair to expect or demand that counsel perform miracles. A good lawyer can often make lemonade from lemons, but he or she will rarely be able to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear. Look, we all learned this in kindergarten – BE FAIR!
After reading this, I don’t presume that you will spend your weekends sipping a Bloody Mary by the pool with your favorite lawyer or client. Perhaps, however, you might have a keener awareness of some ideas to forge a better working relationship that will lead to better outcomes. You might even develop a mutual respect and admiration for each other…