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How Lawyers Can Avoid Client Complaints

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on December 07, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

An unhappy client won't be a client for long. And if a client is unhappy enough, you could soon find yourself before a disciplinary committee, trying to rebut a client's complaint.

Luckily, avoiding client complaints is not that difficult to do. Here are some simple strategies for keeping your clients happy and complaint-free.

Be Nice, Especially Over Email

Sometimes, client satisfaction comes down to simple courtesy. We understand that you're busy -- and expensive. You might not have the time to respond to a client's every 'if, and, or but.' Plus, you probably know that you're client won't appreciate being billed for those 15 minutes you take responding to an idiotic email.

But that's no excuse for being rude, snippy, or condescending. This is especially important over email, where tone can be hard to convey. According to the Law Society of British Columbia, rude and uncivil behavior is the top complaint against lawyers. Neil Hain, a Law Society staff attorney who handles complaints against lawyers, explains:

A lawyer, for example, might feel that they're getting inundated with email requests from the client and they're getting fed up. So either they ignore the client or they give a bit of a snippy response saying, you know, 'cool your jets.' They could use a paragraph in their retainer agreements talking about a communication protocol where they're discussing things such as email, phone calls, how reporting is going to be done and what is reasonable in terms of response times.

Sure, they're talking about Canadian lawyers, but the advice is just as applicable to us Yank attorneys below the 49th parallel.

Set Clear Expectations About Scope and Fees

Unsurprisingly, fees and scope are another common point of contention. Complaints are more likely if a client feels mislead about the nature of your fees or the scope of your representation. Discussing fees in your first meeting is a no brainer, but be sure to make clear the scope of work as well. Seth Rosner, an attorney in Saratoga Springs, New York, advises lawyers to "define as exactly as possible the scope of your engagement. New clients always think you are agreeing to do more than you think you are agreeing to do."

Never Mess With the Trust Account!

There are complaints and then there's disbarment. And few things can lead to disbarment faster than messing with a client's trust account. Attorneys sleep through criminal trials and aren't disbarred. Attorneys get caught committing fraud and aren't disbarred. But steal from your clients and you're out. Don't ever touch a trust account -- not even to "borrow" money that you'll pay back tomorrow. It's the fastest way to lose not just your job, but your profession.

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