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If communication is rockin’, the ARDC won’t come a knockin’

Clifford's Notes, Chicago Lawyer February 5, 2014

By Robert A. Clifford

I recall reading a story about 10 years ago that I still find disturbing: On a cross-country flight, a lawyer sat next to the president of one of the firm’s top clients. When the president discovered the lawyer was the managing partner of the firm, he commented, “Yes, your firm used to be our lawyers.” The company had stopped sending work to that firm six months prior, but no one at the law firm noticed because no one had contacted the client in months. Inexcusable.

Since then, the economy has taken such a downturn that perhaps some would think that this scenario would not happen again, but somehow it probably still does.

Of the 6,155 investigations conducted by the Illinois Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission in 2011 (the latest numbers available), charges were made against 4,063 lawyers or about 4.6 percent of all registered attorneys in the state. A failure to communicate was involved in more than 20 percent of the investigations. Following simple core values and common sense, codified in the Rules of Professional Conduct, can keep the ARDC from a lawyer’s door.

Lawyers are busy people, but clients are the very people for whom they should be taking the most time. Unfortunately, clients can get lost in all of the work. There are all kinds of contact with a client – from the initial meeting to sorting out conflicts, prepping for a deposition to approaching settlements. All of this doesn’t involve just good business practices, it takes a good relationship with the client. And that takes building over time.

The initial contact with a client may be through a referring attorney, a friend or a firm’s website. For some, it may even be a television commercial. Have you seen those late-night commercials when lawyers talk about jumping through hoops for their clients? It is beyond embarrassing.

Certainly lawyers cannot mislead and need to be honest in all of their contacts with the public, but how these type of contacts help professionals get business is beyond understanding. Instead, I would suggest spending the time and money on organized bar associations. Whether it be local, state or national bar groups, they all provide important contributions to the work that lawyers do.

Following up with people is so important. If that means hiring support staff to help keeping one on task, it is a wise investment. It goes a long way to have a legal assistant or associate follow up that a lawyers is aware of the client’s call but out of the office that day and will get back to the client as soon as possible. It has been recommended to proactively keep in touch with all clients every four to six weeks. That sounds like a good idea.

Don’t forget about something called a telephone – calling clients to update them about the status of their cases can matter a lot. There are often questions they want answered and that deserve answers. Educating clients is so important for their general understanding of the justice system and how it works. It is also good for the case because a fully informed client may offer important information in building the case as well as the relationship. An involved client will better appreciate when something good happens and when something takes a turn for the worse.

I remember hearing a study that a doctor listens for 23 seconds before he or she interrupts. The same may be said for some lawyers. Listening to your clients is very important. That means you have to understand your clients’ goals and demonstrate a commitment on your part in achieving those goals. Don’t overstate what you can do. Spell it out in a fee agreement upfront – even if friends or relatives are involved.

The ARDC answers many questions on its website, iardc.org, from how long you should retain your clients’ files to opening and maintaining a client trust fund account (a rule that changed in 2011). The ARDC also allows a lawyer to ask questions so that a prospective problem is solved before it becomes an issue for you.

I have been dedicated to helping lawyers answer questions and have done so through a Continuing Legal Education program that I provide free every year. Last year, more than 3,000 lawyers across the state registered. This year, the program will be offered Feb. 20. “Ethics of Client Communications” includes Illinois Appellate Justice Maureen Connors, ARDC Chief Counsel James J. Grogan and Sara Parikh of Leo J. Shapiro & Associates. To register, visit cliffordlaw.com.

The ARDC also provides free CLE programs including one titled “Getting Good Clients and Keeping Them.”

It includes a discussion on networking, marketing, advertising and Internet contact with clients – an area that has proven to be even more of a concern with e-mail and social media.

Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are sources of finding and keeping clients, as is a law firm’s website, but all of this takes time and money. A lawyer has to make sure the firm can handle this type of interaction before getting into it. The most important advice from the program was to “know yourself.”

Investing time with clients and asking what more you can do means treating existing clients like new clients – so they don’t become former clients.

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