Thirteen Tips for Improving Client Relationships
The most neglected person in any civil or criminal litigation is often the client. We spend so much time preparing for the case and dealing with the other lawyers and the court that we often forget about building a relationship with our own client.
Every case has a "critical point" where we insist that our client take our advice. However, the client will not always do what we think that he or she should at this critical point because we have not taken the time to build a relationship at the beginning of representation. I am reminded of a conversation I overheard in the halls of the courthouse one day when the lawyer was yelling at the client: "Bill, why will you not agree to settle this case?" The client explained that his name was Steve and if the lawyer had not spent enough time to know the client's name then he obviously had not spent enough time on the case to understand what it was all about. To help foster the important relationship with the client I offer the following suggestions.
- Recognize that your client is under a huge amount of stress over the case. Be aware that because he or she is concentrating on the case the client will forget to take care of other important things. The client will call and say that he or she (pick one): lost my job, got evicted, got into a fight with my roommate, broke my leg/arm/foot/neck, lost power in my house because the light bill did not get paid, lost my cell phone, getting divorced and (always my favorite) totaled my car. Explain to the client that they may be particularly susceptible to these "extra" problems because of the stress of the case.
- Have your client write you a letter about the "story of my life." The client certainly feels better and gets a real opportunity to tell you all about his or her history. The client can write this while away from your office and spend some time gathering facts and information. It is simply amazing what you will learn about your client. I have never failed to obtain at least one little "nugget" that will help me later in the case. On one occasion I interviewed my client to learn only that he had "served in the Army." When he wrote his life history he explained how he had won all these medals and had been a hero in the war, which is something I never thought to ask him. This fact was extremely important given that his credibility was at issue during the trial.
- When you meet with your client tell them when you will get together again. Clients are always happy to meet with their lawyers, but they lack a certain connection between the meetings. If you plan ahead as to when the client will meet with you again then the client has something to "hang on to" before the next meeting. This may seem like a minor point, but the client certainly needs that connection.
- The client needs information! Some lawyers think the client is so stupid that they would never understand anything so the attorney sends the client nothing. Have a routine practice in your office that the client gets copies of everything!
- The greatest sin that an attorney can commit in a criminal case is failing to go with the client to see the pre-sentence officer. No lawyer would consider allowing the client to meet with the detective or the district attorney without the lawyer being present. However, lawyers frequently allow their clients to see the pre-sentence officer or probation officer without being there. The clients simply do not know how to act and do not know what to say or do and frequently give incorrect or incomplete information, which shows up on the pre-sentence report to the detriment of the client.
- Help your client prepare the pre-sentence report questionnaire. In state court the judges give the clients copies of the questionnaire to be taken to the pre-sentence officer. Lawyers routinely tell the client to "fill it out" and take it to the pre-sentence officer without so much as helping the client in any way. This is frequently fatal to the client at the subsequent sentencing hearing because the client has inevitably forgotten to mention some important part. This can be remedied by the lawyer going over the thing before it is taken to the pre-sentence officer. This seems basic but many lawyers think the client can fly solo.
- Never tell your client to meet you in court at 9:00. Always tell them to be there at 8:00 because they will inevitably be an hour late and will thus show up on time! We forget that our clients do not know where the court is located. We forget that the client does not know how long it takes to get to court and is unaware of parking. Allow for this.
- If the client has to bring something to court, have them leave it by the front door so they will bring it in the morning. This is very helpful so your client will not tell you that the important document is in "my wife's car and she drove it to work."
- Tell your client what to wear to court and have them lay it out the night before. Inappropriate dress includes: tank-tops, flip-flops, police-are-pigs tee shirts, nose, lip, eyebrow rings. If the client wants to wear the shirt with the giant marijuana leaf on it tell them that that is just fine because in about an hour the client will be wearing an orange jumpsuit.
- Tell the clients not to bring: cell phones, pagers, children or Bibles.
- Warn your clients that they are subject to urine tests when they go to court. I watch in amazement as defendants go out the back door week after week because they fail their urine tests and curse their lawyers for failing to warn them that they would be subject to such tests when they went to court. The lawyers are amazed that the clients are still smoking dope but the lawyers have, of course, forgotten about tip number one: that the client is under a lot of stress.
- Tell the client to get their tail-lights fixed. There is no point in getting stopped again by the police.
- Always document your file with respect to your contact with your client. A short pencil is better than a long memory!