Judith Weigle is a professional mediator at Extreme Mediation and performs attorney-client fee mediations for the Los Angeles County Bar Association. Having seen more than her share of attorney-client disputes, Judith has some ideas about how lawyers can avoid conflicts with their clients by changing their client communication and servicing them as other professional service businesses. Picking Judith’s brain about this recently, it’s clear her recommendations can not only prevent disputes—they make for good attorney marketing strategy, too. Here are Judith’s thoughts:
Many attorney-client disputes have to do with the amount of work estimated in the initial consultation compared with the actual amount of work, and the way in which the clients are billed: The client believes his attorney wasn’t up-front about fees and that he was overbilled. There are many reasons for this:
- The attorney painted too rosy a picture about the outcome, and the length of time needed to handle the case.
- The attorney didn’t ascertain the client’s budget, or didn’t accept the client’s budgetary parameters.
- Clients were unaware of everything that they could be charged for, such as depositions, expert witnesses, listening or reading to client’s communications–the lion’s share of the communication process.
- The attorney didn’t regularly invoice, resulting in a larger invoice covering several months.
Judith says that as an attorney, being transparent regarding your fees and your process at the inception of a client relationship goes a long way toward avoiding an uncomfortable misunderstanding later. Furthermore, it demonstrates to potential clients (who are also potential referral sources) that you are trustworthy and client-oriented.
Transparency in fees begins with declining to “ballpark” your costs. Ballparking often fails. An attorney might say, “I really don’t know how much it’s going to cost. I’ve seen divorces go as high as x; I’ve seen divorces be as low as y.” Judith suggests that lawyers address budgets openly and early, and discuss what you can control and what the wild cards are. An attorney could say, “Let’s talk about your budget and our game plan. Here’s what I can and can’t control.”
Judith also recommends that attorneys provide clients a basic outline of the work they’re planning to do for them, saying that even when one is preparing for a mediation, “you receive an outline for the steps in a litigated case.” She says, “Let the buying public be privy to the process of their case.”
Clients aren’t aware that, in many instances, the lawyer is legally and ethically obligated to continue providing services, and that there are hoops a lawyer needs to jump through if he wants to stop working with a client for financial reasons. Too often, the client in a fee dispute claims that the attorney kept working when the client told them to stop – and the invoices kept coming – yet the client kept engaging in the relationship. The client’s rationale becomes, “Well, I told them to stop. Since they kept working I didn’t think they were going to charge me or charge me as much.”
Judith suggests that at the onset of the relationship, when they legally can, attorneys should consider attaching the Substitution of Attorney form to their contract and explaining to the client that at any time the client feels that the attorney isn’t properly representing them, or because of financial hardship, the client can proactively dissolve the relationship with this form. The attorney would be making the client responsible for ending the representation. This would eliminate the argument in a fee dispute that the client told the attorney that funds were dwindling; the attorney didn’t listen, kept working, thereby making the attorney responsible for the money owed instead of the client. “No good business person allows a client to run up their bills to the extent that I’ve seen attorney bills mount. Clients without legal backgrounds aren’t of the same mindset as attorneys; they don’t see attorneys as people who continue representation out of duty to a greater good. They look at attorneys as salespeople of legal services.”
Finally, attorneys should lose the legalese and acronyms and use layperson’s terms. In fact, Judith advises, they should check that their client understands what they’ve said by actually asking them to repeat back what they understood. “Then you’ll know whether what you said just sunk in,” she says. “If it doesn’t sink in—if you’re not positive that the client is absorbing your message—you land in a fee dispute, because they’ll say, ‘Well, I guess I didn’t understand what they meant.’”
All this straight-shooting won’t completely avoid fee disputes, but it will provide a framework that gives more information to the client so that they can be knowledgeable purchasers of legal services. It also puts more responsibility on the client for their part in the relationship. From a professional-services marketing perspective, it will help you gain new clients. “After all,” Judith rightly notes, “as a consumer, if you went to buy a product or service and that company guided you in a cost-efficient manner, educated you about the process, gave you more control in the relationship, and engaged collaboratively, you would trust them because they were client-oriented. That’s a good business decision.”