12.10 Effective Communication Part I – Setting Expectations and Boundaries
Effective communication is essential to managing all client relationships, but particularly so when clients have difficult personalities. Communication starts with the first meeting and the retainer agreement. Be certain your client understands the important elements of the retainer, including:
- what services you can and will perform. It is critical that you clarify in exact terms what the client's expectations are, and remain aware of those expectations throughout the course of your representation;
- what services you cannot, and will not, perform;
- how your relationship is going to work (including a protocol for ongoing communications); and
- your fee structure and billing requirements. It is imperative to provide sufficiently descriptive bills and to explain the billing process to all clients.
You should provide the client with written confirmation of these elements.
Establishing a clear communications protocol is important. If your usual practice is to have queries from clients handled by other lawyers, students-at-law, or staff in your office, then make that clear to the client, and explain that they will only hear from you on substantive issues. Have your staff copy you on communications with clients and keep records of telephone calls with clients, so you can meet your commitment to address queries on substantive matters as they arise. Make sure your staff understand your expectations with respect to communicating with clients; at times, staff may not follow up as the lawyer wishes and this can result in difficulties with the lawyer-client relationship and reports to the Law Society. You are ultimately responsible for how your office operates and for ensuring your clients are well-served.
Using email or texting as a means of communication often comes with an expectation for shortened response times. This may tax your resources if not managed carefully. Including a paragraph in the retainer agreement outlining a communication protocol and discussing things such as email, texting, phone calls, and how reporting is going to be done and what is reasonable in terms of response times may go a long way in addressing client expectations. Here is an example:
I will try to return your phone messages or respond to your communications (letters, emails, or texts) as quickly as possible, but I will not always be able to do so on the same day that you send them. I am primarily a [courtroom lawyer] OR [transaction lawyer] and am often [in court] OR [attending closings]. When representing a client [in court] OR [in a transaction], I devote my time during that period to that client and have only a limited ability to return other clients’ phone messages or reply to their letters and emails. When it is your turn to go court or close your transaction, I will be devoting my time to you and your case.
I remind you that I will bill you for all telephone calls, emails and meetings, including any time I may need to prepare for such conversations or review documentation (including emails and texts) before or after our discussions. In order to receive the most value for the services you pay for, I will try to be as efficient as possible. In turn I hope you will limit our conversations in time and subject matter to those topics necessary to resolve your legal problems.
If you have any questions or need to provide me with additional information, I suggest that you write to me or, if I am not available, please speak to my legal assistant, [name], who may be able to assist you or can pass on a detailed message to me.
You should be aware of the provisions of Rule 3.2-1 of the Code of Conduct regarding "Quality of Service" towards clients. The Law Society has several resources to assist you in drafting a strong retainer letter: See the model retainer letter available on the Law Society website and Module 8 (Retainers) of this course.