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Has the “mother-in-law from hell” client called you recently? (6th August 2013)

I think it’s impossible to imagine how a small to medium law firm can be run without what I call the four pillars of practice.  The pillars are; a Time Recording Policy, a Credit Control Policy, a Client Engagement Policy and a Career Path Policy.  That is not to say that there are many other policies needed to assist in the smooth running of a firm.  It is just that without these Policies that must be written, settled, adopted by the partners and explained properly to the staff, it is highly likely that the firm’s position differs from partner to partner and possibly client to client.  On that basis you can’t expect the staff to know what to do.  That is one reason why people say running a law firm is like herding cats- good luck with that approach!

In this article we will look at the Client Engagement Policy.  When you start practicing you are very often naive.  You don’t foresee a client not liking you, or failing to act reasonably with you.  After some time you see another side to some clients and it is a learning experience.

If you are a Partner or hold a Managing Partner position then you would know how much of your week is spent on these sorts of issues. If you look objectively at the issues, and put yourself in the client’s shoes, you can often see things differently.  I believe that most of the problems that results in a client wanting to tell everyone he has ever met, about what a hopeless solicitor you are, stems from a breakdown in what I call the Client Engagement process.  This is established in the first meeting with the client, or possibly even the first phone call as well.

Let me give you a simple example that a Sydney client revealed to me the other day.  Mary (not her real name), a young solicitor, saw a young couple buying their first property. The phone call and initial instructions were uneventful and as fate would have it, a problem developed concerning a neighbouring property being slightly over the boundary.  The problem was fixed in the course of the matter.  Mary advised the clients once it was all sorted (which took quite a lot of hard work apparently).  Mary added some extra time to the invoice (in reality she only added a fraction of the actual work she undertook but that’s another issue).   When the matter settled and the clients were told of the additional fees that’s when world war three started.  Mary, far from being praised for her skill, was threatened with a complaint to the Legal Services Commissioner (as we have to tell clients how and where to complain), as well as phone calls to her boss.  This was followed up by a phone call from the parents, yes both parents, all “current” clients of the firm.

Every solicitor with more than about 2 months experience can write the ending of this story….

So, let’s not deal with what actually happened, let’s look at how a Client Engagement Policy should have worked.  The Policy is written and formulated by the partners.  It relates to all areas of law, not domestic Conveyancing.  The Managing Partner explains to the staff the importance of the Policy and how not having one can turn a model client with connections, into the “mother-in-law from hell”.

In this matter, with the Client Engagement Policy in place, Mary explained the usual process to the clients.  She had a check list of issues she needed to raise with the clients.  She followed this up with a letter which identified not only the scope of the work but the usual journey a matter typically takes and highlighting some of the issues that could arise.  The clients left the meeting know exactly what the cost would be, the anticipated disbursements, and the likely time the matter would take and so on.

The clients left the meeting not thinking that no matter what happened in the matter the costs to them would be $995 plus $500 (or whatever the numbers were).  They understood that these figures applied if the matter proceeded normally and additional fees would apply if certain events occurred that were described in the follow up letter.

This is just one illustration of the 1001 examples of how a good solicitor dealing with good clients can engage with them properly.  She is able to charge properly for the time fairly spent on the matter and navigate her way through to the end, without the “mother-in-law from hell” ever visiting her doorstep or phoning the office for a rant.

The take away message; think about the four pillars of practice. It makes practicing so much easier and you won’t be chatting with you know who.