Clients, Be All That You Can Be (For You)

I have written about what businesses should expect from your lawyers, and also about how you should expect your lawyer to go about representing you.

But what should clients do? I do not mean that from the sense that clients owe certain things to their service providers. The client is the customer and lawyers tend to say among themselves, “The client is always right.” The client is entitled to set deadlines and require communications in the format the client wants. Further, while it is the lawyer’s job to provide and assess options for the client’s consideration, ultimately the path chosen is the client’s decision unless the client directs the lawyer to make it. Hopefully the client and the lawyer have a relationship such that there is valuable give and take, but the client is the boss.

Bill Nolan

But it is in the client’s own interests to be a “good client.” Using counsel most effectively means taking steps that, yes, just happen to make the lawyer’s life easier as well. But the real point is that the following steps will allow your lawyer to represent you most effectively.

1. Don’t be penny wise and pound foolish. Over the years, the clients who spend the smallest amount of their budget on my services are the ones who have figured out that it costs less to invest in a few minutes of my time at the earliest stages of a problem than it does to figure things out themselves and increase the likelihood of expensive litigation. It costs less to get the oil changed regularly than it does to replace the transmission.

2. Do not withhold information. We can best represent you when we have all information that might be relevant at the outset of the case. If there are (hypothetically) 10 relevant documents, trust me, it does not save you money to give us what you think are the three most important documents to save us the time of looking at the other seven. Sooner or later we are going to need the other seven – probably sooner, maybe now – and it will be in your interest to give us all 10 in the first place.

3. Let your lawyer help you manage your emotions. Many legal problems are upsetting. You are in a dispute with somebody who is milking the system, or who is not being honest about prior conversations you had, among other things. Or you have seemingly been singled out for the “attention” of a government agency that seems to be overlooking the fact that your competitors are doing exactly the same things they are investigating at your business. It’s not fair, and it is diverting money, time and energy from the mission of the company that is your life’s work. You are mad, and understandably so.

I do not expect clients not to be mad. It is human nature. But how you can help yourself is to understand that you are upset and recognize that your judgment is affected by that. You need to listen to somebody who is not as deep into it as you are. If you want to pay your lawyer to listen to you vent – go ahead. But after you get it out of your system, stop and say, “Okay, what are we going to do about this? Tell me what you think I need to hear, not what I want to hear.”

You are still the boss, but somebody a step removed may have the best perspective.

4. Be consistent in your direction, or if you are not, recognize there are costs to changing. Clients are entitled to change their minds over the course of a case or other project. For example, clients that in 2012 chose to pay X dollars in legal fees for a 50/50 shot in a lawsuit might question in 2013 why they are doing so and want to seek a negotiated resolution they long ago rejected. Often it seems these changes in direction are caused by executives becoming focused on a matter they had previously delegated to their subordinates.

Again, this is not wrong and as lawyers we are not entitled to consistency from our clients. Clients can change their minds and directions as often as they want. But most lawyers I know sincerely want to represent the client as well and as cost-effectively as possible, and we can best do that if the client’s message is consistent. (Of course, circumstances change in cases and other projects, and that may necessitate changes in direction. That is not what I am referring to here.)

The key here is to identify, with your lawyer’s assistance, the various possible results at the outset of a matter. Identify who will be interested in each of those scenarios, and get those people on board at the outset. To do this effectively requires a certain organizational culture of communication and accountability that is not always easily accomplished, but at least the exercise of spelling out all scenarios, from very good to very bad, at the outset can be helpful. If you are not asking for – or your lawyer is not volunteering – the worst case scenario and sharing it with the people who will become involved in the event of the worst case scenario, you should.

As I said, as a client you do not have to do these things. There are plenty of lawyers out there, and it is commonly said that it is more of a buyer’s market than ever before for legal services. But if you make yourself a “good client,” the real winner is you.