How to Protect Your Practice from Crazy Clients 
by Dustin A. Cole
 
President, Attorneys Master Class

Over the last 20 years, I have worked closely advising dozens of family law clients, so I fully understand how difficult family law can be even under the best of circumstances. As they say, it's dealing with good people - and sometimes not-so-good people - at their worst. Keeping control of good clients who go astray, and making sure you filter out the not-so-good clients is essential if you are to hold on to your sanity.

In family law or any practice area, one of my basic rules is that if you don't fully explain how you will work together, they will make it up for themselves - and you'll be wrong. That's especially true - and especially dangerous - in family law. Many attorneys move directly into the technical details and requirements of the matter, and skip over the all-important education process - often to their dismay later.

Here are some steps I recommend to my clients to help them control their clients and protect their finances - and their sanity.

The first rule of control: choose your clients carefully.

Guarding your practice against crazy and/or unreasonable clients is always important, not only for your bottom line but also for your sanity. But when business slows, those filters often develop gaping holes. Jay Foonberg offers his famous quote "It's better to NOT do the work and not get paid..." and I offer my own version: "it's better to NOT do the work and not go crazy..." Attorneys often equate "busy" with "successful," and accept bad clients just to stay busy.

When the worried attorney accepts too many clients that don't fit their financial and/or psychological parameters (you DO have specific standards for clients, don't you?), they discover they're working too hard and being driven crazy by clients from hell - but not making money. The fact is that clients who don't intend to pay don't care how much of your time they take - so they'll take plenty. The result: not enough time to focus on marketing activities and referral relationships. Then, because business is down, so they accept even more of the "D" clients. Thus the downward spiral continues. How to ramp up your marketing? That's another article.

The second rule of control: set the rules of engagement.

It's important to remember that most clients have never been through the process of divorce, or at least have not been through it with you. That means they do not have any clear picture of how the process will go, or how they will work with you. In fact, many clients want to dump the entire matter on the attorney and avoid it until it's over.

In advising my family law clients, I suggest that every engagement begin with an "Integrity Agreement" between client and attorney. This is completely separate from the retainer agreement, and is designed to imbue the client with a full understanding of their own roles and responsibilities in the matter, as well as those of the attorney. During the initial conversation, the attorney talks through each point, both attorney and client sign it, and the original is given to the client.

The purpose of this step is to set the stage for a smoother relationship, and create an agreement which you can refer to later. Rather than having to essentially step on a client who has launched themselves into the stratosphere or has not paid a bill, this allows the attorney to refer back to the agreed-upon roles and responsibilities outlined in the initial "integrity discussion."

The Integrity Agreement begins with a statement of mutual responsibility, such as:

"The purpose of hiring an attorney is to gain the support of a professional who has the ability and experience to guide you through the legal process toward the optimum outcome. The attorney?s purpose is to pursue legal remedies, but cannot make key decisions without consultation with and information and direction from the client. Therefore, both the attorney and client must be committed to full participation in the matter. This document outlines the roles and responsibilities each party agrees to for the purpose of obtaining the optimum outcome."

The list of attorney roles and responsibilities include such issues as:

  • "...will provide diligence and support at all times"
  • "...will respond within XX hours to phone calls and inquiries"
  • "...will seek client direction and decision at all key points"
  • "...will manage your matter with the goal of obtaining the desired outcome"
  • "...will assure that attorney and staff are reasonably available during office hours to provide advice and consultation and will interact in an empathetic and responsive manner."

One important item which should also be included is:

  • "...The attorney's responsibility is to apply their legal skills in an objective, practical and dispassionate manner at all times. When in the attorney's opinion the client is in a mental state which compromises their decision-making ability and threatens the client's long-term interests, the attorney has an ethical responsibility to refer the client to a qualified mental health professional."

(When a client has become overwrought, rather than scolding the client, the attorney can now point the client back to the agreement and say "remember our discussion? We're at that point where, as part of my responsibility to you, I have to say...")

The client's roles & responsibilities include such items as:

  • "...will respond promptly to attorney meeting and information requests"
  • "...will make decisions and provide direction to the attorney promptly as requested"
  • "...will make all appointments and attend all meetings as requested by the attorney"
  • "...will refrain from emotional outbursts and behavior when which can compromise outcomes when meeting with the attorney, opposing counsel or other interested parties"
  • "...will render payment for attorney services or costs promptly"
  • "...will refrain from contacting the attorney outside of business hours unless such contact is the result of a specified emergency, which is defined as..."

The third rule of control: draw them a road map.

Fear of the unknown, and surprise at events is one of the biggest reasons clients get crazy. Develop a simple step-by-step flow chart of the steps a typical divorce will go thru. Print it out in a distinctive color. Then sit with the client, red pen in hand, and walk them thru it, making notes, adding and subtracting steps, jotting in approximate timelines. It doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to shine a light into that dark cave of the unknown and give the client the comfort of some understanding of what is ahead.

Be sure to discuss points when things may go slowly, to alleviate their fears when it does. It's not something you simply point to in their packet (which will likely never be read) but something they have seen and heard and are likely to remember. When you've finished the walk-through, put it in their folder. Later, when the client calls in worry and fear, you can easily refer back to it.

The fourth rule of control: educate your clients

There are two parts to this. The first is a relatively simple "how to and who to" list which sets down in writing:

  • Who to call for what
  • What information to leave when leaving a message
  • How calls are handled and returned
  • Office hours
  • Hours the attorney is normally available and not available for meetings or calls
  • Firm contact information such as address, phone number, e-mail address, fax number, etc.
  • Emergency phone number, and how such calls are handled
  • Definition of an emergency

The second is specific information on charges and billings. It should include such items as:

  • Billing rates for various staff
  • How specific tasks or steps may be billed
  • What additional costs beyond time may appear on the bill
  • When bills are issued and when payment is expected
  • When payments are considered overdue and what steps the firm may take
  • Permission to file a request to withdraw as attorney of record for specified non-payment (filing a request is unlikely to get you withdrawn, but a copy of the notice to the client might spur prompt payment)
  • Information on how retainers are managed and accounted for
  • The "evergreen" retainer process

This is one more client roadmap for how to work with you and your firm. It sets further parameters that support the attorneys personal and professional boundaries.

If all of this sounds like a lot of wasted time, not so. 15 extra minutes in the beginning spent educating a client and setting the mutual standards for working together can save uncounted hours of frustration and lots of uncollected invoices.

The fourth rule of control: follow your own rules

Once you've set the rules of the engagement, it's vital for you to "be your word," as they say. If you lay down the rules and then don't follow through on something, you'll teach them that you weren't serious about that rule - and probably not about the rest. The most important rules are the ones about billings and payments. Let that one slip and they'll learn that you'll continue to work for them even when they're not paying.

There is much, more which surrounds these points and make them more effective. But these will provide a powerful start on building better client relationships, reducing stress and making sure you get paid.

Dustin Cole, president of Attorneys Master Class, is a Master Practice Advisor who helps attorneys build more profitable, enjoyable practices and create financially successful retirement and transition plans. For more information go to www.attorneysmasterclass.com or contact Cole at (407) 830-9810 or via e-mail at dustin@attorneysmasterclass.com.