Every year thousands of attorneys find themselves the subject of a State Bar complaint. While the Bar does not publish statistics on the basis of these complaints, it’s clear from reading the ultimate discipline reports that a great many of these complaints stem from a lack of communication. So how do you avoid a complaint being filed against you? A big step in the right direction is simple — communicate with your client!
It seems simple, really. When the phone rings, answer it. If you miss a call, call them back. If you get an email, write back. Yet simple as it seems, these basic tasks are often left undone.
The phone rings, you see it’s your client, and knowing that you don’t have anything to tell them that will make them happy, you let it go to voice mail. Maybe you listen to the voice mail, and maybe you don’t. You know you need to call them back, but the same thing that kept you from answering when they called keeps you from calling them back. They call again. And again. If you ever do finally listen to the messages, you hear an escalating level of frustration from the client. By this time, you’re genuinely afraid of calling them back, because you know you’re going to get an earful. Either you know you deserve that earful and want to avoid it, or you’ve convinced yourself that it is the client who is being too demanding to expect you to have called back yet. Either way, the relationship is deteriorating and heading straight for an ethics complaint before your eyes, and you’re afraid to step in front of the bus.
Our jobs as lawyers are not always full of pleasant news. Sometimes we have to tell a client that something has gone wrong in their case. Sometimes we even have to tell them that their case is at its end and they’ve lost. It’s hard to just pick up the phone and deliver bad news. It’s not something we prepare for in law school, where no one ever seems to talk about how to handle interactions with real people who pay our bills, but it’s something we have to develop on the job and face.
Clients deserve to hear from us. It’s not just that the ethical rules require us to communicate, but so does basic human decency. Our clients pay our bills, and they have every reason to expect value for that money they have paid us. You may be doing excellent work on their behalf, but if they don’t know that, they are going to get frustrated and angry. And ultimately, they are going to file a complaint.
So don’t leave your clients out in the cold. Talk to them, regardless of how pleasant or not the news may be, and help avoid a complaint.
If you receive an ethics complaint from the California Bar and you’re not sure where you should start, check out The State Bar Playbook. This is Megan’s interactive and easy to use guide (and community!) that will help guide you through the process from receipt of the complaint all the way through the appeals process!