This is a “how to practice” blog that you may want to read and think about if you are a young lawyer. It might be of interest to clients and prospective clients as well, offering insights against which can be measured attorney-client relationships being forged or already formed. While it is pertinent to the practice of law generally, it is a blog that was primarily written to be shared with plaintiff personal injury practitioners and clients.
Let's start with the first misperception many lawyers have about what their clients expect of them. Ideally, an attorney is skilled, experienced, and articulate; and the service that the attorney provides is excellent and invaluable. Right? You would think that if all of that were true, a client would always, after the job was done, be overwhelmingly pleased. Many attorneys believe that, and, might logically conclude after a victory, for example, “I won her case! She must think I was great.”
But interestingly, in the final analysis, I have come to realize that it is usually far more important to clients that the attorney was a person who cared about the right things, than about whether the case was won or lost, or how much money was obtained.
Cared about the right things – meaning what? As in, caring about the client themselves as a human being; about the client's case (versus all of the lawyer's other cases and own personal problems); and, about minimizing the stress of the legal process for the client.
In contrast, what won't the attorney get good reviews and repeat business from caring about? Well for starters, the attorney fee. Lawyers whose biggest focus is on the amount of fee they will make, or about being reimbursed for every copy or long distance phone call made on a given case, obviously, won't impress their clients in any favorable way. Likewise, the attorneys who take and pursue a case merely for press or publicity aren't ever likely going to be voted favorites by their clients. Another classic example of misplaced motives are those attorneys who focus totally on winning their cases, just for the sake of being able to brag that they won, without pausing to reflect on whether a compromise short of trial might have better served their client's needs.
So, if I had to say what the number one maxim for attorneys is, or should be at least, it is this – put the client first. Care most about them – and do all you can to communicate openly with them throughout the representation, about their case, in a manner that will minimize the stress of the legal process.
What follows perhaps reiterates some of the above but includes other basic notions that I've gleaned over nearly 40 years now “in the trenches”, so to speak, which might be useful tips for a young plaintiff-side personal injury practitioner. It is, for better or for worse, essentially phrased as a list of “dos” and “don'ts”.
In the beginning...
Be honest. Be tactful, but blunt. Claims and litigation have risks, and nobody should pursue them unless and until they first fully understand all of the potential risks versus rewards.
Don't build unrealistic expectations.
Don't promise more than you can deliver.
Don't get talked into signing up a client where your instinct is that the case outcome, after all attorney fees, costs, experts, medical bills, and liens have been satisfied, won't likely significantly improve the prospective client's situation.
Return phone calls. Promptly. From existing and prospective clients alike. Get back to people the same day they call if at all possible. Even if you haven't yet accomplished a promised task for a client, call back and advise as to when you will be able to get it done for them and get their case moving forward.
Return emails promptly.
Remember they didn't hire your paralegal, they hired you.
If you can, accommodate drop-in meetings with persons interested in your services as well as with existing clients; use it as an opportunity to say hello and schedule a more convenient time for a detailed conference regarding the problem at issue.
Even though you may not have an immediate need to do so, call your clients every now and then, before they call you. Call them, for example, when you are meeting with your paralegal and talking about their case, just to say hello, and let them know you are working on their case. Use it as a chance to get an update on their status, and advise them of your plan at this juncture for their case.
Copy your clients freely with documents related to their case. Letters from the insurance company, letters from opposing counsel, doctors' reports and opinions, motions filed by either side and related briefing, and daily correspondence and emails. At the outset, let the client know you will be doing so, and that this documentation will just be information provided for their benefit should they wish to read it.
Get to know your clients. Don't be afraid to spend some time with them. Learn about them as a person. Learn about what they do for a living. Learn about what they enjoy in life and what they deem important. Learn about their families. Learn about what they expect from their case, and what they expect from you. Sometimes it's not all about money, sometimes they just may want to have their day in court, or a chance to tell the party that hurt them how they feel.
You can share your opinion as to whether a case might be better settled than tried, but always make sure your client understands it is totally their decision, not yours, as to whether or not to settle, and that you are willing to try their case for them if they want you to do so.
Likewise, always make sure that going through an arbitration or a trial is something that your client is really willing and able to do. Some people are just simply not cut out for the stress of being a litigant. Don't try to force them to be what they are not.
In the end...
Once their case is concluded, make it a point to thank your clients for having trusted you with their legal problem. Invite them to stay in touch with you; to call you about any legal problem they may have whenever any may come up for them in the future. Follow up with them occasionally, as you may happen to think about them or the work you did on their case, in future years. Call them, just to say hello, and see how they are doing.
ATTORNEY FEES AND CASE EXPENSES
It is a fact, thankfully, that contingent fees make for better attorney/client relationship opportunities because clients don't get charged by the minute, by the hour. That fact allows for the chance to better get to know your client in a PI case.
Don't charge for long-distance calls.
Don't charge for photocopies.
Discuss large case expenditures like hiring pricey investigators or experts with clients in advance, and obtain advance client approval therefore, before you incur those big ticket cost items.
Front costs in PI and wrongful death cases, but continually remind clients that costs advanced are a debt against their case which will be taken out of their recovery at the end of the case in addition to the percentage attorney fee, and that if they don't win their case, they will owe the costs advanced back to your firm, irrespective of the unsuccessful outcome.
PI CASES SAFE PRACTICES
Ascertain and tickle statutes of limitations and tort claim deadlines as a first case priority.
Get and read insurance policies early on in search of potential time deadlines.
Ask for disclosure of tortfeasor liability policy limits early on.
File lawsuits early.
Overkill on effectuating service of process.
Tickle all court-ordered discovery and other time deadlines and dates.
Line up experts for trial as soon as you learn of a trial date from the court.
LIFE – THE BIG PICTURE
Keep abreast of the news and current issues, read books, write for pleasure, attend or immerse yourself as an actor in theater and plays, observe and learn from orators in other walks of life (study the content of the great speeches made throughout recorded history, observe and think about what connects with you when at a forum, memorial service, church sermon, debate, etc.), and take advantage of as many hands-on workshops on how to present as a trial lawyer/story-teller as you can.
Care about your clients, but you will be able to serve them best if you are alert and interested, not fatigued and overwhelmed, when you do bring your focus onto their case. To be such, you must remain a well-balanced person who also has his or her own life outside of work.
So work hard, but rest hard too. Learn how to disengage from work, get away, and play sometimes. How to not have your mind on work when you are with your loved ones, when you are home evenings and weekends, or on vacation.
The practice of law offers the possibility for a truly wonderful career. It can be intense, but in a good way if done right. It is interesting, and allows for the opportunity to help people. Treat your clients with the respect that you do your family and friends, and they will know and appreciate that you care about their case, big or little, and about them as a person. In the end, I hope you will be able to have enjoyed your life at work as much as I have mine.