Law students have a lot to worry about: passing mid-terms and finals, writing competitions, law review journal, preparing for the moral character application, and preparing for the bar. Then, there are on-campus interviews, summer internships, and trying to maintain some semblance of a life. Law school isn’t easy. While there are classes and books that touch on how to set-up and run your own law office, most do not discuss potential issues that you can prepare for in advance concerning client problems and protecting yourself from a bar complaint. To help feel that gap, we’ve put together this list of 5 things you need to know now that you can use to protect your future law practice.
Know How to Identify Who the Actual Client Is for the Matter
Certain types of cases are known for third-party payors. Insurance defense and family law are just a couple of areas. An insurance company pays a lawyer to represent their insured. A family law client may need your services, but their parent may be footing the bill. The person paying you isn’t necessarily the client. They aren’t necessarily entitled to protected information.
Don’t Make Decisions That Are the Sole Responsibility of the Client
As a future lawyer, you have an important job that comes with heavy responsibilities. While it is your job to educate the client, there are certain decision that only the client can make. Your job is to satisfy the “objectives of the representation” while the client makes the actual decisions. It is up to the client to decide on whether to settle or litigate. You can educate, but the decision isn’t yours. You also may not make, negotiate, accept, or reject any offer unless you have the client’s permission. You counsel, they decide.
Good Communication with Clients Is a Necessity
As a lawyer, you’ll be required to communicate with your clients by providing them with regular updates. One of the most common reasons that bar complaints are filed against lawyers is because they don’t provide the proper updates to their clients. When you give proper updates (with appropriate details) to your clients, including how their money is used, clients are happier.
You must also make the effort to return phone calls and emails from clients. If you’re going to be out of the office for court, negotiations, or if you’re not going to look at your emails or take phone calls for a day so you can work on an intense matter, use your out of office responder and update your voicemail to let people know when they can expect a response from you. Do your best to return all emails and phone calls within 24 business hours.
Being kind with clients, potential clients, and even opposing counsel can help protect your reputation and your legal practice from a bar complaint. Kindness shows clients and potential clients that you care. As a lawyer, you’re being paid to take on the problems of another person. You don’t need to become as emotionally invested as the client, but you are being paid to treat their problem as if it is your own. Take the time to truly listen and be prepared for every meeting and hearing.
Watch for Red Flags for Potential Problem Clients
Not every potential client is someone you should take on. Of course, sometimes the signs of a potential problem are well hidden until someone pays you for your services. You can’t always avoid a potential problem, but there are some initial signs you should watch for both before and during a client relationship. This can help you determine how to proceed and, hopefully, protect your legal practice.
According to the ABA for Law Students, some signs of potential problem clients include:
- Someone who requires constant reassurance
- Someone who wants predictions from you about the cost and the outcome
- Someone who micromanages the entire process
- Someone who seems overly concerned about cutting expenses
- Someone who doesn’t have a realistic sense of time to resolve the matter at hand
- Someone who seems to be looking for revenge
- Someone who has a matter that isn’t within your professional wheelhouse and where you don’t have the appropriate amount of experience
- Someone who changes lawyers on a regular basis (and not because they need help in a practice area that is not an area where their primary lawyer practices)
- Someone who cannot communicate well with you about their needs and desires
- Someone who seems to constantly second guess your judgment or who “knows someone who knows someone” who went through this “and they said…”
- Someone who willfully and constantly ignores your legal advice
To learn more about red flags and how to weed the client garden, listen to Megan’s podcast, Weeding the Client Garden and Avoiding Unnecessary Headaches.
While there’s no way to proactively eliminate the risk of a bar complaint for your future practice, taking the time to learn more about the practical side of business while you’re a law student can be very helpful.