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Lawyers often assume that clients know how things work, and when clients say, "You bet I understand!," the lawyer takes the client as his word. But the client doesn't always understand why, for example, you haven't called in three days to update him on his case. A lot of client frustration comes from not understanding what's going on or why something is the way it is, which can lead to unnecessary state bar complaints.
While this list is by no means exhaustive, here are five things you should explain to clients to avoid potential confusion:
1. Explain How a Retainer Works.
Your ad might say that you work on retainer, and a client might nod his or her head to indicate he or she understands. But you'd be surprised at how many clients don't understand what this means. In order to prevent the client from getting upset in the future, explain your fee agreement, what a retainer is, and how it works. And brother (or sister), if you don't put fee agreements in writing, you've got bigger problems than this list can help with.
2. Explain What's Billable.
No, clients don't read the fee agreement and they don't understand what's billable. They need to be told that every time they call you, or you call them, that costs them money. Basically, nothing is free. Also explain the difference between attorneys' fees/costs and court costs, and how the client will be billed for each.
If you charge for an initial consultation, you absolutely have to make that clear. Don't rely on your website or something silly like that as putting the client on notice; if the client isn't actually informed about the fee agreement, that can be a pretty effective basis for a state bar complaint.
3. Explain When You're Available.
You're an attorney, not an answering service. Manage client expectations early and often by letting the client know that, no, you won't respond to a text in the middle of the night. Calls will be returned within a reasonable amount of time, so don't run to the state bar if your call isn't returned in a few hours. Maybe also explain why -- i.e., you have other clients. (This is also the time to point out that litigation takes time, so don't expect a quick turnaround.)
4. Explain the Fee Structure.
Think this list is heavy on fees? Good, because fees are among the top complaints clients have about lawyers. Explain what you charge for each thing, and then when the client asks, "Why are you so expensive?" you can politely remind him or her that you have multiple years of education and experience behind you, that's why.
5. Explain What Appropriate Court Attire Is.
No, clients don't necessarily know how to dress for court. And if witnesses or family members will be present in court, they too absolutely need to be told how to dress. (Think I'm kidding? Courtrooms in Alameda County, California, have signs on the doors telling visitors what they can't wear in the courtroom; this includes pajamas, sweatpants, and revealing tops. So no, clients don't automatically know how to dress.)