Originally posted 2010-04-02 09:00:25.
For this week’s Guest Post Friday, Construction Law Musings welcomes Jordan Furlong (@jordan_law21). Jordan is a partner with Edge International who specializes in analyzing the extraordinary changes now underway in the legal profession worldwide. He is also a Senior Consultant with Stem Legal and head of its Media Strategy Service. He authors the award-winning blog Law21: Dispatches from a Legal Profession on the Brink and can be reached at email@example.com.
It’s rare and refreshing that I have a chance to write for a website that focuses less on lawyers than on clients, especially individual clients or those in small businesses. I’d like to take advantage of the opportunity that Chris has generously provided by talking about five ways in which you can be a more effective client.
Note, by the way: I don’t mean ways in which you can be a “good” client – there are more than a few of those lists out there, and they usually involve things like “Respond promptly to your lawyer’s requests for information” and “Be realistic about how quickly your lawyer can return your phone calls.” As you can probably guess, these lists are prepared by lawyers and are meant to manage clients for the lawyer’s benefit.
It’s not that those aren’t helpful and important points, mind you. But I’m more interested in suggesting ways in which you can be a more “effective” client – maximizing the impact of the time and energy you and your lawyer devote to your project and your relationship. Here they are.
1. Tell your lawyer what’s important to you. Not just “I really want to win this case,” which the lawyer already figures. I mean, what’s important to you in terms of the conduct and impact of the entire relationship between you and your lawyer. What conditions will deliver satisfaction to you? What is it you want out of this engagement, not just in terms of outcome but also in terms of experience, conduct, timelines and price? Think about what you really want to have achieved, and how you really want to feel, by the time the engagement ends. And then tell your lawyer about it.
For instance: how much are you willing to spend before the cost of this matter outweighs even the best outcome? How often do you have to hear from your lawyer – by phone, letter or email – in order to feel that you’re acceptably in the loop? Do you absolutely have to speak with your lawyer each time, or will a trusted assistant do, and if so, which one and why? What’s a “win” for you, what’s a “loss,” and what lies in between? Identify the standards by which you’re going to measure your satisfaction with this engagement – not just the end point, but the entire process leading up to it – and then communicate those standards clearly to your lawyer. She has no other way of knowing what they are.
2. Set your pricing expectations up front. This is one of the many ways in which a client has to take a more active hand in the lawyer-client relationship than he might expect, in order to maximize its effectiveness. Most lawyers are money-shy: they’re reluctant to talk about how much something will cost, for a variety of reasons, and if pressed, tend to low-ball the estimate because they’re afraid the client will experience sticker shock and walk away. Don’t let your lawyer get away with this, for her sake and for yours.
Ask how much this is going to cost, and don’t be satisfied with any variation on “It depends.” Find out what factors could throw off a price estimate – this judge is unpredictable, that lawyer might try to drown us in paper, etc. — and press your lawyer to quantify the risk these factors represent (percentage of event’s likelihood multiplied by cost of event is one simple measure). Tell your lawyer to give you the upper price range for these sorts of matters and the high-end likelihood that this range will be reached. Most importantly, make clear that you’re prepared for sticker shock, and that you’ll both be better off if this price is discussed at the start, rather than at the end of the relationship. But you’d better mean it – if you ask your lawyer for brutal honesty, be ready for a little brutality.
3. Keep the big picture in mind. Partly this has to do with an imbalance of priorities. Your lawyer, no matter how considerate and connected she might be, has scores of clients and hundreds of files; you have one lawyer and one file, and it might mean the world to you. Make the most of that priority imbalance by keeping a watchful eye on the matter (collecting and managing reports and updates is a good practice) and touching base with the lawyer regularly with the long-range view in mind.
The other way in which the big picture is important to keep in front of you is that both you and your lawyer can get bogged down in petty or irrelevant details. You might take deep offense at a tactic employed by an opposing party and seek retaliation in kind, or your lawyer might want to chase a series of remote possibilities down a rabbit hole of time and money. Keeping the big picture in mind is a good way to issue reality checks over the course of what can be lengthy, exhausting and burdensome legal matters.
4. Encourage your lawyer to tell you what you don’t want to hear. A family law lawyer I know ends every initial meeting with a new client with these words: “You’re never going to like me more than you do right now.” It’s an effective way to make clients realize that, as Elihu Root once said, half the practice of a decent lawyer is telling clients they’re damn fools and should stop. Telling someone what he doesn’t want to hear is tough for anyone; telling it to someone who’s paying your bills is even tougher. Make it easier on your lawyer, and better for you, by giving her permission early on to give you news you don’t want.
The most obvious positive effect is that a lawyer unafraid to present unpopular options to her client is better able to render competent service, and the client is better informed about the wisdom of the choices he faces. But by assuring your lawyer that you’re ready for tough advice, you help deepen and mature the relationship – you can talk more as equals and partners, rather than as an advisor and decision-maker, or worse, a parent and child. Part of a lawyer’s job is to be the bearer of bad news; help her do that job as well as possible.
5. Be the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. Two years ago, my wife and I had extensive renovations done to our basement, and the less said about that unhappy experience, the better. But it’s almost the only thing I can say I’ve experienced in the construction law field, and I took from it the one lesson that you, as readers of a construction law blog, already know: if you want your job to be done on time, on budget, and to something resembling specifications, you have to check in with the contractors every day.
I’m not advocating daily phone calls to your lawyer. But it’s human nature to respond to the persistent and engaged client more often and more effectively than the client who’s all but absent from his own file. In some cases, the lawyer might respond to the squeaky wheel just to get it to stop squeaking – but the important thing is, she responds. Do your part to move your legal matter along expeditiously and cost-effectively by maintaining regular involvement and being as engaged as you can be, short of irritation or harassment.
As I said earlier, a good lawyer-client relationship operates like a partnership, and in a partnership, each party is expected to bring their A game and be fully involved with and committed to the process and the outcome. Be an effective partner for your lawyer in the conduct and completion of your legal matter by following the steps above. And remember: you’re paying the bills, and while that entitles you to certain expectations, what it really does is oblige you to get the best results for your investment by being a smart, engaged and astute client.