Don't Leave Your Client Relationship on the Sidelines

Many lawyers leave their clients on the sidelines, on the outside looking in. It may be time for attorneys to replace this strategy with one that educates their clients and encourages them to join the legal problem-solving team.

We know the definition of student education: The acquisition of information by students in a class setting such as a college, high school or other institution. We also know the definition of consumer education: The movement to protect consumers from the failings and excesses of the distribution system by which we receive our goods and services.

Now, the professional services are beginning, albeit somewhat reluctantly, to embrace a hybrid concept of the two in terms of client education and teamwork.

For example, doctors are educating their patients and realizing many benefits in the process. By talking to and bringing the patient onto the problem-solving team, the treatment process is usually more effective with better medical outcomes. And even more importantly, patients tend to be more satisfied when they know what is happening in their treatment and why.

Lawyers are learning the same lesson. In the past, attorneys have been so involved with the technical aspects of providing their legal services that they have almost ignored their clients. Certainly, most lawyers traditionally have not viewed the education of the client as an important part of the lawyering process.

Today, however, lawyers are finding that a better informed client is a client more satisfied with the professional services delivered by that lawyer. And this is usually a result of the direct involvement of the lawyer in the client education and team-building process.

Clients can be viewed as passive or active. The passive client relationship goes something like this: The client presents the lawyer with a problem. The lawyer then mobilizes his or her team and whatever facts are available to solve the problem. Lawyer receives problem; lawyer solves problem. The client is merely an outside recipient of the problem's solution. In this portrayal, the client may easily become dissatisfied if a total "win" is not achieved because the client is outside of the process. He or she is unaware of the complexities and pitfalls of the case and the Herculean efforts made by the lawyer.

Now look at the active-client scenario. The lawyer is knowledgeable, authoritative, directional and problem-solving, just as before. However, the client--who is also knowledgeable, authoritative and directional--is now part of the team. He or she can become a co-problem solver. For example, the client may be a source for gathering additional information needed to pursue the case effectively. Or the client may suggest new approaches that a lawyer/technician may not see clearly at the moment because of caution or other factors related to the particular matter. To paraphrase an old saying, two educated observers are better than one.

In one example, a doctor was sued over a road easement dispute involving two parcels of agricultural land. The plaintiff was a well-to-do local "bully" who had intimidated many of the neighbors with threats of legal action. The defending doctor, who also brought a cross-complaint, met with his attorney and quickly understood the theory of the case and what kind of evidence would be required. The doctor decided to become part of his own legal team and went with his attorney to interview the skittish neighbors. Because of the doctor's close relationship with many of the neighbors, the attorney was able to interview them and persuade some to testify. That testimony was crucial to the doctor's position, which was upheld in court. The doctor was able to see how becoming part of his own legal defense team could help him in the long run.

This active-client option "empowers" the client in the lawyering process. That power will create and continue the communication process between the attorney and client and will probably reduce the client's level of stress. It will also educate the client to fully understand that the attorney is performing well on his or her behalf. And, as an additional benefit, client education should also reduce the risk of the lawyer receiving a malpractice complaint. After all, how can a client blame the legal team when he or she is on the team?

It's time for lawyers to bring their clients in from the sidelines and onto the playing field.