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Set Yourself Up for Success: Setting Expectations and Establishing Good Client Screening

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Set Yourself Up for Success: Setting Expectations and Establishing Good Client Screening

Screening clients, scoping cases and setting appropriate expectations of clients is a fundamental part of having a successful legal practice. It’s important to be able to determine whether a potential client fits your (and your firm’s business) model, whether the potential client has any knowledge of the legal remedies available to them, and whether they have a realistic understanding of the costs involved. Setting appropriate expectations from the get-go can make or break your attorney-client relationship. During this hour long seminar, we will address the many issues that can emerge from an attorney’s failure to set appropriate expectations and screen clients, as well as provide tips to ensure that you are set up for success from the very beginning.

Transcript

- Welcome to Set Yourself Up For Success, Setting Expectations And Establishing Good Client Screening. My name is Roya Samarghandi and I'm an attorney based in Chicago, Illinois, and the founder of Karma Law LLC. My firm provides legal services aimed at modest income individuals in Chicago and the surrounding areas. I practice in all areas of family law, from divorce and custody, to adoptions and Department Of Children And Family Services appeals. I also represent criminal clients and parties to orders of protection. Today, we're gonna touch on a number of topics, including the importance of creating a conflict check system, how to successfully screen clients and scope cases, and how to set expectations for those clients you do engage to establish not only a successful attorney-client relationship, but a successful practice more broadly. Prior to launching my firm in 2015, I practiced in corporate transactional law, where I truthfully was blissfully ignorant of many of these issues. But as I started my own litigation practice, making sure I was working with the right clients became of paramount importance. Trust me when I say it was a steep learning curve for me. However, with the information set forth in this course, I hope that you're able to bypass some of the mistakes I've made along the way and set yourself up for success moving forward, let's get started. First, take a moment and consider how many of these situations you can relate to. My client calls me three times a day and is driving me crazy. My client stopped paying me and now I'm working for free. This case is killing me. I don't even do family law, but I took this case because I needed the money or about my client has unreasonable expectations and is impossible to satisfy? screening clients, scoping cases, and setting expectations are arguably the most important elements for setting a lawyer up for success. Attorneys can have a good business model and pricing menu, but still fail because they fall short during this stage. You've got to get these parts right. First, let's take a moment to think about a conflict check system. Implementing a conflict check system is one of the most important things you can do, and it'll prevent a lot of headaches for you down the road. Let's consider what a conflict of interest even means. Conflict conflicts of interest can exist in a number of fronts from concurrent clients, meaning two clients that exist at the same time or a former client to a concurrent client, third parties, and even you as a lawyer's own individual interests. Now it should be pretty clear that you can't represent adverse parties in a single matter, but other situations might not be as clear cut. Perhaps you have a personal or even a romantic relationship with a potential client. A little practice tip from me to you, if a friend or a family member comes to you for legal representation, refer them, refer them, refer them. And in fact you should be mindful that a lot of jurisdictions and states have expressed prohibitions against having a personal, romantic, and or sexual relationship with the client. Another example is a conflict between a former client and a current client. I've had paramores, boyfriends or girlfriends of former clients come to me for their own family law matters. In such cases, while not always a bright line conflict of interest, there's sufficient enough of a concern for me that a conflict could exist or arise that it's a situation I choose not to involve myself in. In such case, I leverage my network and try to provide appropriate referrals for that individual to get them to someone who might be able to assist them. For more information about conflicts of interest, I encourage you to review the specific ABA model rules, including rule 1.7, 1.9. For more information, I encourage you to review the specific ABA model rules, including rule 1.7, 1.8 and 1.9, as well as model rule one 1.18, which specifically deals with prospective clients. More than likely the same or similar rules have been adopted by your local jurisdiction or state. Now turning back to creating that conflicts of check system. I encourage you to create it early and update it often. The hope is that you will, if you don't already have so many clients that you quickly won't remember them all. I'm reminded of this every time I put together our holiday mailing list. Having something that you can refer back to is key. Now it does not have to be any type of fancy system. I know attorneys that have been practicing for 15 or 20 years that simply have an Excel spreadsheet that they utilize as their conflict check system. You can also use your case management program or other software, just make sure that it's easily searchable. For me, I use Practice Panther as my case management software, and it has an integrated field that specifically deals with conflicts checks. I encourage you not to schedule or conduct a consultation until you have sufficient information to run a conflicts check. The reason for this is that even when no attorney-client relationship ultimately results from the consultation, for whatever reason, you as a lawyer are prohibited from revealing or using information that you learn during that consultation. There are still ethical obligations that attach to your conduct just by virtue of the consultation alone. So what type of information should you include within your conflicts check system? Well, you need sufficient information to differentiate from one Adam Smith to another Adam Smith. I recommend at a bare minimum, you include the potential client's full name and middle initial or name if possible, as well as their address, phone number, email, date of birth and who the potential adverse party is. You wanna keep track of everyone you substantively talk to and keep notes of those conversations. What type of matter were you consulted on? And if you haven't already included this information, who is the adverse party or potential adverse party to the case? Did anything result from that consultation? Or did you merely decline for any reason? Perhaps the case was more complicated than you could take on at the moment or you felt another attorney or agency might be a better fit, Perhaps it was something as simple as your gut instinct, just screaming no. Whatever the reason might be, make sure that you've notated that. This has saved me many times in the past. I've had plenty of potential clients after I've declined them during an initial consultation submit a fresh intake months, if not years later. And thankfully I had sufficient notes in my case management software, to understand why we didn't proceed with representation at that time. Sometimes it's as simple as enough as having my office send a referral and a declination via email. Now you may be asking yourself, at what point do you actually add someone to your conflicts checklist? If a potential client were to cold call your office, asking if you practice in a different jurisdiction or work in a practice area outside of your normal practice areas, that's not something that you necessarily need to include. For example if someone calls my office inquiring about a bankruptcy or a real estate transaction, that's something I know I'm not gonna consider. And so my office can immediately decline that potential client without obtaining any personal or private information. But to the extent that you're having substantive conversations and obtaining non-public and or client in case specific information, it's good to make sure that you've included that within your conflicts check system. Let's turn now to client screening. How can you tell if someone is a good fit for you in your practice? Let's talk about some questions that you should consider asking yourself during the initial consultation with a potential client. First and foremost, are you even comfortable with this kind of legal work? If not, do you have the time and desire to become competent in the relevant practice area? Don't spread yourself too thin, that will just open you up to malpractice or disciplinary complaints. Perhaps it's an appellate case that you are interested in learning more about, consider co-counseling with another attorney and during the consultation, think about whether that might be a viable option for you. However, if someone contacts my office with an immigration matter, I understand I will never be competent enough in federal immigration law to appropriately represent that client. In that case, I'm gonna leverage my network and provide a referral to that potential client for somebody who is already competent in that relevant practice area. Another consideration that you should be thinking about during a consultation is whether you feel comfortable with the potential client, or are there personality clashes between the two of you that might make representation of that potential client untenable? What are the potential client's goals? And do they have reasonable expectations? If during the course of your consultation, you haven't successfully changed the potential clients' unreasonable expectations, don't expect them to change during the representation. Think of it a little bit like a marriage. If you're going into the marriage thinking your spouse is gonna change, I can almost guarantee you, you're headed for a divorce. You should also be considering whether the client can afford the amount of work necessary to accomplish their goals. If they're adamant about going to trial, do they have the funds available to fund that trial? If not consider offering unbundled or limited scope services only if appropriate, if you are considering offering unbundled legal services, I encourage you to reference the Chicago Bar Foundation and Justice Entrepreneurs Project Limited Scope Toolkit for additional screening tips as to which type of potential clients might be appropriate for limited scope services. If the client cannot afford you, do not take them on, just refer them elsewhere, including to legal aid organizations. Another thing that you should be focused on evaluating during the initial consultation is whether or not you have the necessary time to commit to the matter. Has the potential client left you with enough time during which to provide competent assistance? Or they coming to you with a last minute quote unquote emergency are perhaps something as serious as a statute of limitations issue? If you have the bandwidth, great, but if not be honest about that, not just with yourself, but with the potential client. One of the biggest things that I'm considering when I'm evaluating whether a potential client is a good fit for me is whether I'm the first lawyer with whom they've not just potentially consulted, but engaged with regard to this legal matter. If not, I wanna delve into why. As I indicated, I gear my practice towards serving low and moderate income Chicagoans. A lot of times they've started at a traditional full scope representation law firm that may charge a retainer fee. And once that retainer is exhausted, they may simply no longer be able to afford that firm. I see this frequently and it's often something that I can work with. But if the breakdown between the client and their former attorney is because the client's uncooperative or has unrealistic expectations, you should absolutely consider declining the case. I also give weight to who their former attorney or attorneys were. Do I know that individual or do I know what their reputation is like? That's something that I consider in determining whether it's the potential client, that's the issue, or if there really was just some other thing that caused the breakdown in the attorney-client relationship. Another consideration that you should be thinking about during the initial consultation is if you'll be able to verify the potential client's material facts of their case, can you check the docket or another public resource to confirm the information that they've given you? If you have been able to validate their information, have you found that they've been open and honest? I can't tell you how many times I've had a potential client come to me and say, oh no, everything's agreed upon. It's totally uncontested. But when I dig in a little bit further, it's clear that that's entirely not the case, or I've had potential clients coming to me to say, oh, don't worry, we're just set for a status date next month. When in fact their case is set for two days of trial, you should also consider if the potential client is able to focus on legal outcomes after you've explained it to them, or, does he or she seem more focused on just revenge? Does the potential client seem open to not just discussing, but agreeing to your fees? We'll talk about this a little bit later. I will note that talking about money can be uncomfortable for all of us, but it's something that you should discuss during your initial consultation and evaluate whether the client truly understands what it's going to take to fund their legal representation. Perhaps the barrier between you and a potential client is something cultural or linguistic. Do you and the client speak the same language? If English is not the potential client's first language, and you also don't speak the potential client's first language, it's important to hire an interpreter or utilize other technology forms for all parts of the case, including the consultation, to make sure that the potential client fully understands the limitations of your representation, if any, and what that means for them. Make sure that the potential client or the future client is fully understanding and under and acknowledging their legal rights and remedies. If you're unable to do this, consider referring them to an attorney with whom they can more productively speak. Now, if I could go back in time to my high school and or college self and take Spanish instead of French, I would, but as it stands, I'm unfortunately not a Spanish speaker. My office gets numerous calls each week with potential clients who only speak Spanish. And while at times I have staff on hand who can help translate or interpret, that's not always a feasible solution. So I have to be honest with myself about whether it's going to serve the client best, to have someone with whom they can directly and productively communicate. I look at this as another opportunity to leverage my network of colleagues and hopefully get that potential client in the hands of someone who's going to be a better fit for them. In addition to considering and evaluating these issues, you should also be on the lookout for potential red flags. Consider the potential client who's simply unable to stay on track. I once received a referral from a very good friend of mine, for a woman who was severely in need of legal representation. Unfortunately throughout the consultation, starting with just trying to confirm her basic information, I could not get her to answer my simple questions. Instead, she was fixated on providing me with the narrative, with which she thought this consultation should include. Unfortunately, despite the personal referral, I recognize that this potential client was gonna be too difficult for me to work with. You should also consider the potential client who's non-communicative, perhaps they're incredibly delayed in confirming or scheduling their consultation, or they simply don't show up. Or perhaps during the consultation they're giving you short, one-word answers. When really what you're looking for is very complete and detailed responses. You should also be wary of the potential client who lacks follow-through. Consider having a system in place to determine this upfront. Think of it as a little homework assignment for the potential client. I might ask a potential client to send me the most recent court order or the complaint or petition that initiated their case. I have a good friend and colleague who's a Social Security Administration attorney. Her office requires their potential clients to deliver to them their medical records or other documentation that would support their claim. This is well before they even speak to the attorney. You should also see as a red flag, the potential client who's the perpetual victim. If they're coming to you saying everyone is wronged them, I can almost guarantee that by the end of your representation, you'll have joined that list. Consider also the potential client who's spouting out legal conclusions or telling you what to do. I've very often spoken with people who want to leverage my legal degree to proactively provide what they've found on Google. As I touched on before you also wanna key in to the potential client who lacks truthfulness. If they're being evasive or lied to you at the beginning, that's certainly a behavior that's likely to continue throughout the representation and could very quickly run you into some ethical considerations. You also wanna be careful about the potential client who's overly emotional. Now let me say, I'm a criminal defense and family law attorney, I work with emotional clients every day. There's very few things that are more personal to someone than their liberty, their freedom, or their family and children. When I'm thinking about this red flag, I'm thinking about whether or not the emotionality of that potential client is going to be an impediment to my representation of them. Are they merely kind of in the thick of things or having a bad day, or am I gonna end up spending a lot of energy being the counselor more than attorney? This final red flag is something that if you take nothing else away from this course, I hope you hear this. And that is your gut feeling about the potential client is the most important thing. You may not be able to put your finger on why exactly you and this potential client don't mesh, but do not ignore that feeling. You may have practiced specific red flags or deal breakers that become more prominent as you grow in your career. I encourage you to keep a list of those red flags and refer back to them, update them as appropriate. None of these may be deal breakers, but collectively they could be. And what you should be considering is the opportunity cost. What opportunities are you forgoing because you took on this problem, case, or client? Is the energy you're expending on this one matter energy that you could be putting forth towards two, three, maybe even four other more lucrative cases? Trust me when I say that the bad client you didn't take is the best money you never make. If you do determine that the potential client is not a great fit for you and you end up declining that representation, I encourage you to lean on that old phrase, it's not you it's me. Almost exclusively, when my office declines a potential client, reframe it as this. I simply don't have the time or the bandwidth right now, given my current caseload to get to dedicate the time that your case needs and deserves. And where appropriate, pass on that referral to other attorneys within your network. I promise you building that referral system is gonna keep rewards on you on the back end. Now let's return to a couple of those initial scenarios we started with. This case is killing me, I don't do family law, but I took this case because I needed the money. This is a clear client screening issue. If you don't practice in family law, refer to another attorney who you know does, or how about my client has unreasonable expectations and is impossible to satisfy? Again, this is another client screening issue. If their expectations were not bendable during the consultation, consider whether or not you wanna proceed with representation. Now let's turn to scoping your cases. Think about that scenario that we talked about as well, my clients have to pay me and now I'm working for free. This impacts scoping cases, as well as setting expectations, which we'll touch on in a moment. As we've discussed, one of the objectives during your initial consultation with a potential client is to determine whether or not they're a good fit for you and your practice. Another objective of the initial consultation, however, is to determine how to properly scope the case. And of course, to negotiate a corresponding price. Consider a couple of examples. Perhaps a client has come to you for a divorce case, but you note that in order of protection has already been consolidated into that case. Is there a disposition order entered in the order of protection or is there a hearing scheduled? Are you gonna handle both the order of protection and the divorce, or is it possible for you to parse those two issues out? What about the client coming to you asking you to draft a quick claim deed? Are you also responsible for recording that deed? Or is the client gonna handle that piece of the matter? Consider whether you're offering traditional full scope representation, or if you're also willing to include limited scope or unbundled services. Now, if you are interested in offering unbundled services, I will note for you that there's a corresponding course that can provide you greater insights into these options. Also think about whether you're gonna charge by the hour or if you're willing to offer alternative billing methods, things like contingency fees, flat fees, recurring fees, or maybe a hybrid of these options. Again, you need to discuss the client's budget for legal services. Speaking to potential clients about money is definitely uncomfortable, but it's something that you should be prepared to do. What services, if any can you provide based on the budget that they do have? If possible, provide the client with a couple of options where you can, but you need to be honest with yourself and the potential client about whether or not they can even afford you. If their income does not provide for your services, are there other avenues that can support that potential client? Perhaps it's a referral to another attorney or a legal aid organization. Maybe there's a fee shifting statute that you can file under. Perhaps there are friends and family that are willing to support this potential client in their legal case. In such matters, you wanna consider whether or not that friend or family member should be signed on as a guarantor in your engagement with the client. I can tell you from experience collections actions cost time and they cost money. So it's best to be clear at the outset. If the client can't afford any of your options, don't take them on. Otherwise you're setting both you and the potential client up for failure. In addition to considering what the scope of the representation should be, you should make sure that scope and other aspects of your representation are memorialized in a written engagement agreement. Let me repeat that, make sure your engagement agreement is in writing. At a minimum, you wanna make sure that your engagement agreement includes the following provisions . First, make sure the scope of the engagement is explicitly set forth in your engagement agreement. And I encourage you to be as specific as you possibly can. Are you handling an entire lawsuit? If so, name the lawsuit. For instance, our engagement agreements literally refer to the matter by its caption. So for instance, with an adoption case, we might say in re the matter of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt to adopt Pax Cook County, Illinois, case number 22COAD123. If it's a case that we intend to actually initiate on behalf of the client, we might say something like the case against Gwyneth Paltro to be filed within the county division of the circuit court of Cook County, Illinois. You'll be surprised at how broad clients can be in their interpretation of your scope. Don't get roped into handling other matters other than what you intended to be contracted for merely because you've failed to be specific in your scope in the engagement agreement. Alternatively, if you're offering limited or unbundled services, this is even more imperative. In that case, I will literally outline not only every item, document, or appearance I'm gonna make on behalf of that client, I'm also gonna be explicit about what is excluded from the scope of that case. Generally, that might include formal discovery, emergency motions or trial preparation or litigation. But let me give you another example. I was recently engaged in a divorce case that had been pending for a number of years. Prior to my engagement, my client, also a lawyer, who had been up to that point representing herself, had elected to consolidate a pending foreclosure action against the marital home, into the pending divorce case. As this was something I had no interest or intention of representing her in, we discussed during the consultation and I make clear in my engagement agreement that all matters related to the foreclosure were expressly excluded from my representation. Accordingly I filed an additional appearance on behalf of the client and have allowed her to navigate the portion of the case expressly impacting the foreclosure. Another provision that you wanna make sure is included in your written engagement agreement is a right to renegotiate. If the scope of the work has changed, you wanna be able to revisit the written engagement agreement to determine if the pricing needs to be adjusted or even if the expectations of you and or the client need to be adjusted. Let's say that I'd failed to do my due diligence in advance of my consultation with the client in the divorce case I just referenced. And I didn't know that the foreclosure action had been consolidated. In that case, I might frankly be stuck handling all of it or perhaps facing a decision to withdraw since my client wasn't forthcoming. But if I were to stay in the case, I'd want the opportunity to terms, particularly payment and fees, as the foreclosure action, implicates, additional issues, additional opposing counsels, and additional complicating factors. In addition I encourage you to consider including termination classes. Under what circumstances can your client terminate their engagement with you? And perhaps more importantly, under what circumstances are you as the attorney permitted to terminate? Make sure that it's clear at the outset and included in writing in your engagement agreement. So that in the event there is a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship, or your client does something silly, like stop paying you, your withdrawal by way of consequence shouldn't come as a surprise to the client. Let's now consider how you set expectations for clients. Turning back to some of those scenarios we referenced at the beginning. My client calls me three times a day and is driving me crazy. As we talked about, this is a screening issue, but it's also a setting expectation issue. Or how about, my client stopped paying me and now I'm working for free. As we just touched on this, impacts, not just the scoping of the case, but also the expectation setting. Expectations for clients starts even before you conduct the initial consultation. To start with, consider what the flow of your intake process is and what tech tools you use to manage and streamline that flow. Do you have a receptionist that takes down their initial information? Do you use an online intake form or some other method? And can you use those methodologies as a way to screen out people who are not a good fit for you? My client intake form has to be completed in advance of any consultation being scheduled with my office. The client intake form can be emailed to potential clients, and it's also integrated into our website. It captures the potential client's basic information, information about their case and information about the adverse party, so that we can run that conflicts check. They then receive an email from my office to schedule consultations, assuming that there are no conflicts in place. Also think about whether you or a receptionist or a virtual receptionist answers your office line. Do you provide your clients with your personal cell phone? Are you willing to text with them including after hours? I know many lawyers love that their clients are able to communicate with them directly. I personally cringe at the thought of my clients having my personal cell phone number. I like to keep a little bit of a distance, a little bit of a barrier, mostly for my own sake, but this is entirely a personal decision. But it definitely establishes an expectation for the client. If someone were to contact your office, either through a call or an online submission, what are some of the things that you're looking for to determine whether the potential client has appropriate expectations of you? Are they repeatedly calling, despite having been told by someone that your office would follow up? I recently referred a former client to another attorney who I thought would be just an amazing fit for them in their pending legal case. Unfortunately, my former client took it upon himself to call that lawyer's office repeatedly in the span of a morning while she was stuck in court. That was sufficient of a red flag enough for her to decline him despite how hard of a sell I made that she was the right fit for him. You also wanna consider whether they're just looking for free legal advice, or if they're really coming to you expecting to hire you. In addition, consider whether they understand what your practice areas are and what your jurisdictional coverage is. Perhaps they're expecting you to travel to a further circuit or county, but not really wanting to pay a higher fee. Another part of the consultation process that sets an expectation for clients is whether or not you actually charge for that consultation. Some attorneys use the idea of a free consultation as a bit of a marketing tool to incentivize potential clients to engage with them. I've played around with this idea a bit throughout the course of my firm, and I've at times charged consultation fees. Presently, I offer free initial telephone consultations. However, I can completely understand the benefit of charging for consultations. And sometimes it's good to make sure that the potential client has some skin in the game and isn't just wasting your time. Perhaps with your practice area, a consultation is more like a full case assessment. In that case, I encourage you to charge a fee because you wanna make sure the client understands the value of your time and the expertise that you're sharing. Maybe you consider the consultation fee back to the client if they end up retaining you,. However, consider if you are offering free consultations, the potential client that just comes back again and again, looking to schedule another quote unquote free consultation. This is a pretty good indication that they're just looking for free legal advice. And at some point you probably should be charging a fee. This is something that I've personally implemented within my own firm. I did notice a small pattern of potential clients who would reach out to me months later after an initial consultation, just wanting to talk through a few more things. By all means I'm happy to have those conversations, but at that point I am requiring that a fee be paid before we schedule that follow up consultation. Think about whether you would ever be willing to just schedule a consultation on-the-fly. Let's say a client calls you and you're not quite that busy. And so you think I can go ahead and do this now. I encourage you to pump the breaks. Schedule, schedule, schedule. One, it lets the client know that you're busy and that your time is valuable, but it also informs a client that you are coming to the table to the consultation prepared. For me, by the time I started a consultation with a potential client, more likely than not, I've already reviewed the client's intake form, reviewed the docket, if they have a pending case, and I'm prepared to assess whether the potential client has an appropriate understanding of where their case is at procedurally, whether they understand where it's going and frankly, whether they're being forthcoming with me. In addition to establishing expectations for the potential client, about how they interact with you in your office, you can also focus during the initial consultation on setting expectations for that potential client about their case. Share a high level overview of the matter and an associated timeline where you can. Outline what's going to be expected of the client and what they can expect from you. What steps are the client going to need to take to get their case through the finish line? I, for one know that each and every one of my family law cases, whether it be a divorce or a custody case, those clients are going to need to complete at least two things. First is a comprehensive financial affidavit. The second is a parenting course. Setting those expectations for my potential clients at the outset during the initial consultation, one, lets them know I know what I'm talking about. I've done this before. It also puts them on notice that they're gonna need to be a partner with me in their representation. They can't just turn things over for me and expect it will all go their way. Further it lets them get started on those tasks earlier than maybe they otherwise would have. You might wanna consider providing written tools that a client can reference back to throughout the course of their case, to see where they are in the process. I have a dear friend and colleague who prior to his legal career worked in a bank. And he took the idea that many banks utilize with laminated, large account examples and illustrations outlining which type of accounts provide which benefits and he implemented that within his practice so that clients can see a timeline of their case, what different options or pass that their case could take. And I love that idea. It's something that's tangible and available to clients to look at even if the attorney is not always as quickly available. You also during the initial consultation, want to communicate with the potential client, how you wanna communicate with them during the representation. Do you prefer to communicate via email, by phone, or perhaps you like to schedule in person meetings. Consider how you're gonna reinforce this to the potential client. For instance, I discuss during my consultations that I'm in court most mornings. So the quickest and most efficient way to get ahold of me is to send me an email. I might not be able to respond as quickly to a call. I have then reinforced that preference in writing in my engagement agreement. And I encourage you to do the same, whether it be in the contract with the client, perhaps a welcome packet, a client code of conduct, or other guidelines. Consider what type of tools you can use to reinforce this preference. For me, I've included a Calendly link that's available as the signature block in each and every email I send. I have a current client right now who at the beginning of our representation of working together would send me emails that would say, got time for a quick call? I quickly understood that with this client, no call was quick, but I also wanted to reinforce with him that I can't just jump into your file at any given time. So what I would do was respond and say, happy to chat, jump on my calendar using the link below and find a time that's available for you. I look forward to speaking with you soon. Pretty quickly, he understood that That was the best way to get ahold of me. And we've cut out the need for that exchange. A big part of setting expectations for your clients is actually just training yourself. There's that saying? You teach people how to treat you and that couldn't be more true with your clients first and foremost, have you established guidelines and expectations for your clients and discussed those with them? Are you following those guidelines and expectations that are set out during your consultation and your written engagement agreement? No one's going to enforce those policies but you. Perhaps your client has failed to pay you and is in violation of your engagement agreement. Threaten or go forward with a withdrawal. If you're like me and probably like many attorneys, you've got a bit of a Type A personality. I really struggled at the beginning of my practice with sending emails on nights and weekends. My inbox is my to-do list. So if I can send a quick email and get it off my plate, I'm all happier for it. However, this leads to clients to understand that you are always available. Thankfully, I've been able to utilize tech tools. I use Boomerang and Gmail. I know there's Mixmax and other add-ons that allow you to schedule emails to go out later at a specific time. This way it's off your plate, but the client isn't getting emails from you at 2:00 AM when you're supposed to be on a European vacation. Now let's turn back to some of those scenarios that we started with at the outset. My client calls me three times a day and is driving me crazy. Well, think back. Did you talk through with the potential client, what communication expectations you had during your consultation? Did you provide a written communication policy, either specifically in the engagement agreement or otherwise that that client can refer to? And could you have implemented tools to reinforce your preferred method of communication? I confess, I sometimes a little passive aggressively will respond to a voicemail with an email. Again, reinforcing that i prefer you to communicate with me via email rather than calls. Consider also the scenario. My client stopped paying me and now I'm working for free. Did you have that uncomfortable conversation about money at the beginning? Was your client put on notice through your written engagement agreement what the consequence was of them not paying. I, for one included my engagement agreement, that if a client is more than two months delinquent, our office will withdraw. . Again it's at my discretion whether to enforce that, but the client is on notice at the very beginning of our representation, that there is a consequence to not abiding by the payment terms. Think about this scenario. This case is killing me and I don't do family law, but I took this case because I needed the money. My friend you simply failed to screen this client out up front. Don't make that mistake next time. And lastly, my client has unreasonable expectations and is impossible to satisfy. Think about what red flags you could have seen during the initial consultation. What were they? How do you look for those at the beginning? Are there particular questions that you can ask to probe the potential client about what their expectations and goals might be? Refer back to that list of red flags that you've started to create and amend it as you think appropriate. Now let's work through a simple, if rather silly hypothetical to try to put all of this into perspective and think about where things might have gone wrong. One morning Mary Jones calls your office having given up on her no-good husband tom . She's finally ready get started with the process of filing for divorce after several years of threatening to leave him. She wants to talk to you right now. You wanna take advantage of her eagerness. Truthfully, it's been a low revenue month and you're grateful just that the phone is ringing. Sure, Mary let's jump into this consultation. Let me grab a pen and pad. You're talking to Mary, listening to her tell you about the highs and the lows of her marriage. Midway through the consultation, you start to think, hmm, this Tom guy's name sure sounds pretty familiar. You don't have a conflicts check system in place, but while Mary's going on and on about all the ways Tom has wronged her, you do a quick search through your files. Come to find out you represented Tom two years ago related to an automobile accident he'd gotten into. You pause, but you think, eh, car wreck, marriage, those things are pretty different. All good, let's proceed. You key back into the conversation with Mary and realize that you haven't even gotten her basic information. You ask Mary to pause so that you can just get her address, email, and date of birth. Mary seems annoyed, but she complies. She then jumps right back to what she was talking about before, particularly how she was gonna take Tom for everything he's got. She wants to leave him pennyless and destitute for all the things he's done to her. 45 minutes later, you end the conversation with Mary feeling like you haven't quite gotten all of the information you wanted or needed. You send Mary a follow up email asking for some additional details. It takes her a few weeks, but she finally gets you the information you need to start the case. You think, eh, we'll work it out. Fast forward four months and you file a divorce case on Mary's behalf. The case is well underway. Unfortunately, Mary doesn't think you're being quite aggressive enough. She told you from the very beginning that she wanted to get everything, and she meant everything. Tom is still driving a car, living in the marital residence. She just doesn't understand. She's calling you every morning at 9:00 AM on the dot. Just as soon as your office opens to express her displeasure. She knows she'll get you on the phone directly. She starts listing off all of her friends, Diana, Lisa, Barb, all of whom have gotten divorced and she swears it never took this long for them. Each morning, you start your day spending 25 minutes on the phone with Mary. And most nights you end your day with text messages from Mary, letting you know what she thinks about your strategy moving forward. She's been watching a lot of Court TV don't you know, and she's got some thoughts. Oh, and by the way, because she's upset, she's also stopped paying you. She keeps telling you that when you get this divorce done, when she gets all of Tom's money, then she'll pay you everything she owes, But you're not getting a penny from her beforehand. She doesn't care that your engagement agreement requires her to pay each of her invoices within 30 days. At this point you're exhausted. And the time you're spending each day dealing with Mary is taking away time you could be using to focus on your other more lucrative clients. Phew. There's so many red flags in this scenario, so many issues, it's hard to know where we start. First, you got sucked into an on-the-fly consultation, meaning you did not properly assess whether any conflicts existed. And indeed, in fact they did. Your representation of Tom in the case two years ago, most likely should have precluded you from even consulting with Mary, much less representing her, perhaps before you let her launch into her story, you could have asked her to pause, get the basic information you needed from her, asked her to wait a moment while you ran that conflict check and you could have caught that issue. Furthermore, Mary clearly has unrealistic expectations about the results of her case. She expected that you were gonna get her anything and everything under the sun, and you were gonna do it incredibly quickly. She also couldn't stay on track during the consultation and you weren't able to gather the information that you needed to properly assess her case. And when you asked for more information, she was slow and giving it to you, and a bit non-communicative. Furthermore, you've now set an expectation that you're available, ready, willing and able to hear her mini gripes each morning and hear her strategy sessions each night. On top of all of that, you're now working for free. This is likely a case that you clearly should have declined from the very beginning, truthfully as soon as you would've run that conflicts check. But considering even if the conflicts of interest had not existed, there were enough red flags along the way for you to have taken the opportunity to decline. In such a case, I would encourage you to cut your losses, withdraw, and move on from Mary. I wanna leave you with one final thought. It's called the practice of law because we're supposed to always be learning. You are gonna make mistakes along the way. I certainly have. You're gonna take that client that's just a pain. You're gonna take that case that maybe you truthfully didn't really have the bandwidth for. But perhaps if you're able to identify how you could have addressed a client's unreasonable expectations, where you could have screened a potential client out from the onset, you're gonna set yourself up for success moving forward. Again, my name is Roya Samarghandi and I'm based in Chicago, Illinois. If I can ever be of assistance to you as you're considering these things in your own practice, please don't ever hesitate to reach out. I wish you much success moving forward.

Presenter(s)

RSL
Roya Samarghandi, LLM
Managing Attorney
Carmel Law LLC

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