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HOW TO EFFECTIVELY MANAGE A LAWYER-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP:

BEST PRACTICES FOR COMMUNICATION, MEETING CLIENT EXPECTATIONS, AVOIDING


RELATIONSHIP-ENDING MISTAKES

By Sherry M. Knowles1 & Scott K. Reed2, 3

Introduction

Developing and maintaining a good attorney-client relationship can be


challenging, but there are a number of steps that can improve the likelihood of creating a
successful and lasting relationship. The steps outlined in this paper share the goal of
making, and keeping, both parties comfortable. Managing an efficient attorney-client
relationship requires effective communication and proactive maintenance of the
relationship by both parties.

I. Three-steps to Achieving Effective Communication In Your Relationship

Effective communication is essential to every successful lawyer-client


relationship. For lawyers, taking a client-centric approach to communicating can
improve an attorneys chances of succeeding in this area. This means listening closely to
1

Sherry M. Knowles, Esq. is the Senior Vice President and Global Head of Corporate Intellectual Property
for GlaxoSmithKline.
2
Scott K. Reed, Esq. is the Chairman of Fitzpatrick, Cella, Harper & Scintos litigation practice group.
3
The authors wish to express their appreciation to Thomas Smith, Senior Patent Litigation Counsel at
GlaxoSmithKline, and Vanessa Yen, Associate at Fitzpatrick, Cella, Harper & Scinto, New York, for their
input to this paper.

better appreciate the client perspective, speaking in a language the client understands, and
tailoring advice to inform the clients perspective.

a) Listen well

Given the many different responsibilities of both attorney and client, it can
sometimes be difficult to do something as basic as listen. Failing to attentively listen will
likely result in dissatisfaction between the client and attorney. Conversely, listening
properly can set both parties at ease and provide tools that are necessary to meet
expectations throughout representation.
On the part of the attorney, listening goes beyond simply noting the essential facts
regarding the legal issues, it is also how the attorney can gain an appreciation of the
clients decision-making perspective, understand the clients goals, and learn the clients
language. The more attentive the attorney is to these things, the more likely the clients
needs and expectations can be met.

b) Speak the same language

One of the quickest ways to make someone uncomfortable is to speak in a


language that other party does not understand. For example, if the client is not legally
sophisticated, the attorney should not alienate the client by providing advice that is

focused on legal jargon. Additionally, if the client cannot appreciate all the contours of
the legal advice, the attorney may fail to tailor the representation to the clients
expectations, or worse, the attorney may undertake actions that are detrimental to the
client. There are several steps that the attorney may take to help avoid such pitfalls. One
possibility is for the attorney to research the clients legal and business experience in
order to gauge the clients sophistication. Alternatively, the attorney can inquire into such
matters at the initial meeting. The initial meeting is also an opportunity for the attorney
and client to gauge their sophistication in the other partys language. In general, the
attorney should adjust his language in the direction of the clients lexicon to ensure that
the client understands and is comfortable. This does not mean that complex issues must
be simplified; it merely means that language should be chosen to convey the complexity
of the issues in as clear a fashion as possible.
The initial meeting is also a forum for the client to explain expectations, problems
and worries; and for the lawyer to evaluate if those expectations can be adequately met.
While it may be necessary for the attorney to educate the client on relevant legal issues,
the initial meeting(s) may not be the best forum(s) for educating the client on nuanced
matters of the law. Of course, some discussion of general aspects of the law between
both parties can serve to reassure the client of their choice of representation. As the client
becomes more educated on the legal issues (and as the attorney becomes educated in the
clients lexicon), the dialogue will, and should, evolve.
Following the initial discussion, the attorney should not hesitate to inform the
client when a legal area is beyond the attorney, or the firms, expertise. In such instances,
it will help future relations if the attorney makes the effort to find the right expertise

within the firm, or if necessary, with another firm. To do this, staff the matter with a team
of lawyers whose backgrounds best match the project.
There are many opportunities for confusion and frustration between the parties,
but with some pre-meeting diligence, and attentiveness to language, it should be possible
to ensure that both the attorney and client fully understand one another during the course
of representation.

c) Attorneys: Tailor advising to the decision the client will have to make

When articulating options for the client, the attorney should consider the
perspective of the client, and seek to present advice in a structure that matches the clients
viewpoint. This may mean that risks and rewards are explained in the context of a larger
business decision that the client will have to make. It is helpful to remember that lawyers
tend to think about issues, authority, and legal conclusions, while business clients think
about the options available and the risk-reward calculus. With such clients, by providing
advice in terms of business choices and risk assessment, the lawyer is more likely to
provide advice in a form that matches the clients viewpoint.

II. How to Maintain a Healthy Relationship

Maintaining an effective attorney-client relationship demands continual attention


from both parties. To help in this goal, it is important to be professional, to establish a
conferencing schedule, to have both client and lawyer be jointly involved in key legal
decisions, to be available and to be well-prepared and be proactive.

a) Be Professional

Maintaining the confidence of a client requires the attorney to possess the


standard professional traits such as preparedness, trustworthiness, sociability, and
professional courtesy. Being well-prepared and trustworthy are so central to the attorneyclient relationship, they require no explanation here. Sociability and business courtesy,
however, can set the best client-centered lawyers apart from the rest. Similarly, by
maintaining a professional demeanor, the client can avoid making the attorney
uncomfortable.
Basic social skills can go a long way in an attorney-client setting. This does not
mean sticking to polite formalities, but rather it means showing a sincere interest in the
client, or attorney, as a person. Additionally, business courtesy, such as being on time for
appointments and meeting deadlines, help to maintain a clients confidence, and helps to
keep the attorney comfortable. There will always be situations where schedules change,
and when they do, it is best to inform the client, or counsel, as early as possible and

explain the reason for delay. Explaining the reasons for change provides the other
individual with a feeling of partnership in a common endeavor. With that in mind, it is
important for the attorney to set realistic deadlines and budgets so that promises made to
the client can be delivered. Meeting these promises will allow the client to find the
attorney reliable and trustworthy both of which are necessary for a healthy attorneyclient relationship.
Further concerning budgets, part of being professional is being efficient with each
dollar. Large clients and cases may have seemingly unlimited budgets, but the clients
will be much more satisfied when representation remains focused on central issues and
does not inefficiently pursue minor or ancillary issues. The same consideration for the
budget of clients applies to expenses not surprisingly, even large clients are much more
content with a conservative rather than liberal approach to expensing. One area where
this may come up is with travel expenses. Travel considerations should be given careful
consideration, and is a topic that should be discussed with the client.

b) Establish a conferencing schedule

Maintaining regular and frequent communication during the course of


representation keeps both the client and lawyer on the same page concerning all
developments, and allows both parties to stay up to date on the agenda and issues.
Setting up a conference schedule early in the representation assures that both attorney and

client will be kept in the loop. It also serves to keep both parties on par with how
responsibilities and tasks have been delegated, and of progress along the way.
One convenient form of conference scheduling is weekly telephone calls. Weekly
conference calls serve to keep the client up to date as to legal developments (e.g., via
status reports), give the attorney a forum to discuss future events, and serves as a regular
strategy session. If there has been little activity on a matter during a particular time
period, this is also an opportunity to discuss the clients satisfaction with the
representation, and to get advice on how the attorney can adjust representation to better
reflect the clients wishes.
Weekly conference calls should include all members of the legal team, and all
appropriate members of the clients team. This promotes comfort between all team
members on both the client and attorney side and is useful because the various team
members will be communicating with each other during the course of the relationship.
Of particular importance is that the meetings be run by the attorney who was hired by the
client. Clients are often frustrated when the attorney engaging them on the matter
changes during representation, or when they hire a senior partner but find themselves
represented primarily by associates. One common complaint from clients is that they do
not hear from the senior partner who was hired except during important events, such as
hearings.
Another common source of discomfort is when the composition of the legal team
fluctuates over the course of representation. If possible, avoid transferring attorneys on
and off the matter. The initial team, which was selected to best meet the clients needs,
should remain engaged with the project throughout, and should participate in the weekly

meetings. This can be difficult to accommodate as firm staffing demands change, but the
client will appreciate the sense of normalcy and security that naturally comes with having
a familiar team on hand, comprised of attorneys who are all equally familiar with the
matter.
Additionally, an agenda for the weekly conference calls should be distributed
ahead of time. Circulating an agenda in advance of the weekly conference calls ensures
that everyone participating has the opportunity to prepare beforehand and to engage in
discussion of the issues. It also gives team members the chance to supplement or edit the
agenda to accommodate new developments.
One additional piece of advice for facilitating smooth and frequent
communications with the client is to staff matters out of a single office. Not only does
this minimize complications for holding the regular meetings, but it can simplify
communications to and from the client. The overall result is an improvement in
efficiency, and less chance of a frustrated client.

c) Attorneys: Keep clients involved in the key legal decisions.

The client is technically the decision-maker, although in practice, clients may pass
a good portion of this responsibility to the attorneys. While this can be convenient,
especially for busy clients, it does pose a risk that some decisions will not perfectly match
the clients interests. When that happens, clients invariably are frustrated at not having
been included in the decision-making process. To minimize the risk of this happening,

try to identify those issues that could instigate such response, and be sure to engage the
client in those decisions. A little bit of extra time communicating between the parties can
relieve a good deal of frustration and unnecessary communication down the road. This is
another topic that is best discussed early in the representation to ensure the attorney and
client have similar expectations.
One important way to keep the client adequately engaged in the decision making
process is to discuss strategy and points in advance of drafting any important or sizeable
briefs. This gives them an opportunity to provide input before the format and substance
of the brief has been established and before there is a time crunch. On that note, it is also
ideal to provide the client with a draft of any large brief enough in advance for the client
to be able to digest it and provide substantive comments.

d) Be available

One simple way to put clients at ease is for a member of the legal team to be
reachable by the client at all times. These days, the Blackberry allows continuous
connectivity for email, but the additional step of providing a cell phone or home phone
number is a simple way to set an anxious client at ease. Some clients will want the senior
attorney who was hired to be available, rather than an associate. Along the same lines,
many clients prefer being able to contact, and being contacted by, the same individual
each time, rather than different members of the legal team.

Being available, however, means more than simply receiving messages it means
being responsive. Failure by an attorney to promptly respond to a clients inquiry can be
a large source of discontent. A delay in responding can convey to the client that that
clients need is not a priority to the attorney, or that the attorney is avoiding giving the
client a negative status report. Even if there is nothing significant to report on the case,
and the attorney is busy taking care of pressing matters for other clients, it is a good
practice to promptly return emails, phone calls and requests to set the client at ease and
avoid any misinterpretation.
Email poses an additional issue worth addressing early in the representation:
when a client and lawyer send an email, each party assumes that the other party has read
it as soon as it is sent. But if no prompt response is sent, the sender may wonder if it was
ever received. To avoid this situation, and the concern that it may cause, one suggestion
is to establish an email response policy at the outset of representation.

e) Be well-prepared and proactive

Many positive results flow from thorough case preparation. One of the most
beneficial results of being well-prepared, from the perspective of client satisfaction, is
improved accuracy of advising and predictions. Clients will return to the attorneys who
are adept at reading the tea leaves. A corollary to this is that clients will not return to
the attorney with whom they have repeated surprises.

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Another direct result of thorough preparation is an improvement in the quality of


the written work. Clear, well-written briefs that highlight winning arguments and do not
waste space on losing arguments should be the end-goal of any legal team. Along related
lines, briefs that are written primarily by associates should be carefully edited by the
partner(s) in charge before being distributed to the client.
It is also very helpful to the attorney-client relationship for the attorney to be
proactive. For example, when dealing with a familiar issue, attorneys have a tendency to
proceed along familiar paths and to avoid unfamiliar alternatives. This inherently limits
the options that the client is able to consider even though the attorney may be most
comfortable sticking to routine. It is in the attorneys interest to at least propose
constructive and creative solutions. At the level of client relations, taking initiative in
such a way is indicative of both thoroughness and a sincere interest in the needs of the
client. At the level of legal strategy, researching new approaches can stimulate additional
new ideas setting off a chain reaction of innovation. The result of such research may be
a new legal strategy that has merit. At the heart of this suggestion is the goal of adding
value to the clients case over what was brought to the attorney initially by the client.
Even with a legally sophisticated client such as experienced in-house counsel, at the end
of representation, the strategy or proof should be better off because of the legal
representation.
Along similar lines, if the law changes, the team should be ready and willing to
alter the legal strategy. The more aware the attorneys are of conflicting jurisprudence
relevant to the case, the easier they will be able to adapt to such adjustments to relevant
legal rules or standards.

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When proposing various options to the client, an attorney should be sure to give
the client enough time to provide meaningful input this becomes all the more important
when some of the options are novel. If the client decides to pursue a route of action, but
that action is outside of the attorneys comfort zone, the client will be more willing to
listen to the legal assessment if it is clear that the attorney has considered the options
fully.

Conclusion

Each of the principles and suggestions outlined in this paper communicating


effectively and maintaining a healthy attorney-client relationship may seem obvious. It
is, however, not always simple to incorporate these practices into an everyday routine.
Most attorneys overlook the importance of making client relations a central focus of their
daily planning, but it is that focus that separates the attorneys with stellar client relations
from the rest of the crowd. All of these guidelines will help the attorney serve the client
zealously and professionally.

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Checklist of Best Practices


1.

Prompt return of emails, phone calls, and requests.

2. Attention from and engagement of senior and other partners on the project.
3. Frequent communication between client and attorney that provide status updates and
involve the client in decisions. Regular meetings between the client and attorney
should be run by the attorney who was hired by the client. That attorney should be
engaged on the matter throughout representation, and not just at big events.
4. Staff matters with lawyers who have appropriate expertise.
5. The legal team should not change throughout representation.
6. Staff matters out of a single office. This allows for fluid communication between all
the attorneys working on the matter.
7. When the necessary expertise is not had by the attorney or firm, help the client find
appropriate representation elsewhere.
8. Be accommodating and open to new ideas and methods, especially when suggested
by the client.
9. Research and propose innovative legal solutions. Innovation in strategy is one
important way to add value to the case.
10. Discuss strategy with the client in advance of drafting important briefs.
11. Provide client with drafts of briefs enough in advance to allow the client to fully
digest and comment. Clients dont like surprises.
12. Prepare thoroughly to be able to provide well written sharp briefs. Cogent briefs will
highlight winning arguments and not waste space on losing arguments. Work written
by associates should be reviewed and edited by the partners.
13. Be efficient with each dollar focus on central issues, and not ancillary ones. Take a
conscientious approach with budgets and expenses.
14. Prepare thoroughly to be able to provide accurate advice and predictions. Be ready
and willing to alter legal strategy if the situation or jurisprudence changes.
15. A lawyer should represent the client with the utmost zeal.
FCHS_WS 278309041.doc

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Taking a Collection: 10 Tips for Effective Fee Collection for


Lawyers
By Edward Poll
Piling up billable hours without receiving cash is the road to insolvency. The goal in fee collection
is to have a high ratio of collected to billed accounts. An overall ratio of less than 80 to 85 per cent
is a recipe for trouble. An overall ratio of greater than 95 per cent might mean your rates are too
low clients could be paying quickly because the amounts are insignificant to them.
Here are ten techniques you can employ to get accounts paid quickly.
#1: Get fees and budgets in writing. Before beginning every engagement, you should get the
client's written agreement regarding the fee to be charged, how it will be calculated, when the fee
is to be paid and the consequences of non-payment, including your right to withdraw. Every
engagement letter should also provide a budget that addresses events, time and money. This
significantly increases the chances of collecting your fee because the client understands what to
expect upfront.
#2: Develop a collection policy. Consider the establishment of a firm-wide written collection
policy that outlines how to keep track of delinquent clients and how to deal with unpaid accounts.
The policy should cover everything from the beginning of the relationship with the client to the
payment of the final bill. Larger firms may want to hire a collections manager, or designate a staff
person, to handle the details of the collections policy.
#3: Offer payment convenience. Accept credit cards to make it as easy as possible for clients to
pay for legal services. Clients today live on plastic and therefore paying legal bills with credit
cards is easy for them.
#4: Manage your collection cycle. Financially successful lawyers prepare a forward-looking
budget of cash receipts and payments for the next 12 months. Develop alternatives to diversify
your receivables stream, for example, by billing one-fourth of the alphabet each week. You could
also shorten your monthly billing cycle, sending out invoices on or about the 25th of the month so
that clients receive statements on or before the first day of the following month, when most
people pay their bills.
#5: Send statements after a positive outcome. If you bill when clients are happy because
you've won a motion or negotiated a favorable deal, they're more likely to pay quickly. Such billing
places the client on the peak of the "satisfaction curve," the time of least resistance for payment
of fees.
#6: Address overdue accounts as soon as possible. Regularly determine which clients are
behind on their payments. Forgetting or ignoring "old" clients results in forgetting or ignoring the
accounts receivable. One study shows that a bill that is over 60 days past due can still be
collected about 89 per cent of the time. However, the likelihood drops to 67 per cent after six
months, and 45 per cent after one year.
#7: Communicate constantly. If a client has the ability to pay but is not paying, they're probably
unhappy with some aspect of the representation. They choose to express that by slowing down or
stopping the payment schedule. To avoid such a situation, stay in continual contact with the client
about progress according to the budget, and to discuss any issues.

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#8: Don't ask for money yourself. If payment hasn't arrived, lawyers shouldnt be the ones to
call the client about it. Instead, ask someone from your staff who's good with people and sensitive
to their needs to make the call. If the lawyer calls, clients may become confused about whether
the call is to request information, seek new business or request payment. Separate yourself from
the collections function to avoid this confusion.
#9: Consider arbitration first, collection service second. Lawyers who consider using a
collection service to collect a fee should first offer arbitration of the fee dispute through the
disciplinary system. Check the rules and regulations of your jurisdiction before proceeding with
either action.
#10: Avoid end-of-year haggling. Never cut your fee after a client has agreed to pay the full
amount. This sort of price shenanigan is quite popular during the month of December with clients
of large law firms. Clients agree to pay their large bills in order to get huge discounts because
partners are rewarded based on how much is collected by years end. Some of these clients have
gotten into the habit of attempting to discount their lawyers' fees for every matter. Dont bite.

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