There’s a small law firm in South Carolina with a Client Expectations policy that’s made a big splash online. The policy, which bluntly states, “We do not work weekends and do not provide emergency numbers for weekends….We make mistakes…” attracted notice from the ABA Journal and generated discussion at several blogs, including Jim Calloway’s Practice Management Blog, Dan Pinnington’s Avoid a Claim and Scott Greenfield’s Simple Justice. Both Jim and Dan compliment the firm for taking steps to manage client expectations, but suggest that perhaps the firm was a bit too blunt. Scott is even more critical. He suggests that rather than essentially tell clients to “pay up and leave us alone,” the firm might instead try to educate clients on what constitutes an emergency because real emergencies do come up – even on weekends- and lawyers need to “suck it up.”
Here’s my view. First, the latter portions of the Client Expectations are laudable. These sections explain to clients how long a case will take and what portions of the case are going to be more expensive, the realities of opposing parties being able to get information through subpoena, the need to behave “as if you’re being filmed by an investigator” at all ties offer important advice (though the site should be updated to include cautions about clients’ use of social media while a divorce proceeding is ongoing). Thus, any clients expecting to retain this firm for a quick, cheap divorce get a solid dose of reality up front, which is important. Unfortunately, this sage advice is buried at the tail end of one of the most self-serving pieces of web copy that I’ve ever seen.
The first section of the Client Expectations section isn’t about clients, it’s all about the lawyers, all about we. The firm proclaims: We don’t work weekends, we make mistakes but don’t yell at us or insult us for making them, we take calls in the order they come according to the priority we assign, we are the only reliable source of information on your case – (but you’ll need to pay to get an update).
If I’m a client, why should I care that my lawyers don’t work weekends? Frankly, clients don’t want to see the sausage being made – that is, they don’t want to know about when or how the work gets done, so long as it does. So if there’s a major trial starting Monday morning, a client doesn’t want a lawyer to stop the clock because she’s not working that day, nor does the client want to hear how the lawyer slaved all weekend. The client wants the lawyer to show up prepared, end of story.
Moreover, avoiding weekend work – and then bragging about it – is potentially fatal to a family law practice. There, many custody disputes or crises can arise over the weekend such as one parent picking up the kids and failing to return them at the agreed upon time, or an abusive ex-husband showing up drunk at his ex-wife’s home on a Saturday night in violation of a protective order. Sometimes, a quick call to one’s lawyer can dissipate a situation that might otherwise explode or give a client a little peace of mind. If my pediatricians had told me that they weren’t available for calls on the weekend, I’d have chosen another practice.
Although the “we don’t work weekends” aspect of the website has drawn the most discussion, I found other parts of the site off-putting as well. As I mentioned earlier, the firm candidly (and to its credit) admits that we make mistakes and will correct mistakes brought to the firm’s attention. But the firm assure clients that it will discount the bill in those instances where it bears responsibility for the errors. Likewise, the firm says that we’re the only source of reliable information about the status of the case, but then directs clients to call paralegals for updates, noting that paralegals are billed at 50 percent less than lawyers. While I can understand a lawyer billing to provide a status report (I don’t do it personally), I’d assume that when a client speaks to a paralegal for a status update, it constitutes an administrative charge that’s rolled into overhead, not billed separately even at a discounted fee. Paying for a status update provided by staff is analogous to paying for sugar packets or napkins at a fast food restaurant: it’s the kind of bonus that ought to be included without charge.
As the conversation over this firm’s website bear out, there are two types of client expectations. The first category relates to matters beyond our control as lawyers: the speed of the docket, the sufficiency of the opposing party’s filing, and the likelihood of success. Managing these expectations is critical or else a client will impose unrealistic demands or feel disappointed at the end of the case. For example, if a lawyer assures a client that the court will rule on a motion in a month and six months pass without decision, the client’s going to blame the lawyer for the delay.
But the second set of expectations relate to what a client can reasonably expect from a lawyer: promptly returned phone calls, respectful treatment, dedication, diligence, honesty and integrity and overall excellence. In contrast to external matters like court schedules, how we serve our clients is a matter over which we have absolute control and as such, is not the type of expectation that ought to be managed or diminished. Rather, as lawyers, we must — and indeed, are obligated to — manage to live up to our clients’ expectations of us as their lawyers, every day of our practice. And if that means working weekends, then we need to manage to do that too.
Update: Didn’t see this before I went to press, but Susan Cartier Liebel of Solo Practice University, who also found the firm’s site off-putting, offers a quick re-write. The revised copy addresses Lee Rosen’s point (comment section) about the need for family law firms in particular to bill clients for status reports. Susan asks: “Would you put this kind of manifesto on your website?” Personally, I wouldn’t (and indeed, arguably, in New York, I wouldn’t at least without posting the more client-friendly Client Bill of Rights. Then again, I don’t have a volume practice or one where clients are especially needy, so it’s not important for me to engage in as much self-selection at the outset, so my experience is not necessarily typical.
But putting myself in the clients’ shoes, I’d be turned off by any provider who had this kind of language on the website. I certainly wouldn’t object if this information were included in a retainer letter or Law Offices Policies kit, where the lawyer explained the need for these policies and where I’d already had a chance to meet the lawyer in person (or interact by phone). However, if any provider – doctor, lawyer or contract attorney – stated those policies up front on the website, even phrased as personably and delicately as Susan suggests, I’d feel as if they were trying to “handle me” like a piece of cattle, rather than serve me like a valued customer.