As a practicing attorney, you know that there are some clients who simply will not be happy, no matter how well you and your office handle their matter. The best defense is to have a robust enough practice so that you can spot the permanently dissatisfied prospect and decline to take them on. But if you are not able to turn away a client, or when your “problem client” radar fails and things go south, there are steps to take to protect yourself and your practice:
Fact Finding and Client Communication. First step: contact the client and apologize. If they are ranting on the phone, let them rant. Do not correct them. Stay calm, no matter how incensed or even how wrong they may be. Assure them that you are gathering information on the issue and are addressing it. Explain that you will be in touch with them frequently as you go through a fact-finding mission. At this point you are sorry that something has happened and you are investigating.
Fact Finding. Was a mistake made? Is it fixable? If so, fix it as fast as possible. Then find out if this is the first time this mistake has been made, and if not, determine what process needs to be put into place or fixed so that this is the last time that the mistake is made.
Communication. Call the client, again, and let them know what progress has been made. Tell them, if it is appropriate, what steps are being taken to remedy their situation. The client does not need specifics about general office procedures they just want to know about their situation and how it is going to be fixed. Apologize again and let them know you are really listening. If they are still ranting, let them rant.
Problem Solved? We’re hoping this is a simple matter that can swiftly be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Those are the best kinds of problems. Once the problem is solved, immediately call the client and let them know.
Problem Can’t Be Solved or Can’t Be Solved Quickly? Find a solution. You may need to call in your resources, people who you respect, whose judgment and legal knowledge surpass yours. Continue to communicate with your client if any progress is being made. Worst case scenario: call your risk management agent and a malpractice attorney. The problem is not going away, and while you may be able to delay dealing with it, that’s not the right approach.
Notice we are not communicating by email or text. A mistake requires a human voice, in real time. You also don’t want a thread of emails in your office with the client or among your colleagues. Pick up the phone to call the client and speak with your colleagues face to face. This avoids further misunderstandings that can occur when tempers are running high.
This is personal. You are a professional, your associates and paralegals are too, but mistakes are personal. To the client, it’s a personal insult that their matter has not been cared for properly. To a team member, it’s an assault on their reputation. Recognize that there are emotions involved on both sides of this issue. Try to maintain your calm at all times, both with the client and your team.
What if there was no mistake and this is a misunderstanding or a difficult client who is looking for attention? Here’s where your skills will be tested. You’ll need to communicate very clearly with your client, step-by-step, in as calm a manner as possible, until they fully understand the issue. If you have done this once, do it again. If they are still behaving badly, then this is a case of a bad client.
Speak with an attorney who focuses on professional malpractice. This won’t be your favorite phone call of the year, but if the matter is one that could threaten your practice or your license, it is necessary. You would not take on a complex medical malpractice case or a divorce matter because that’s not your area of the law. The attorney will know what further steps you need to take to protect yourself.