What Do Your Clients Really Think of You?

  • March 13, 2014
  • Ann Macaulay

Clients may tell others what they think of the legal services they receive, but they’re often shy about telling lawyers directly what they think. Legal clients often complain that they didn’t get what they wanted or feel they didn’t get value for money, says Tim Holmes, manager of the professional conduct group at the Law Society of British Columbia, which received approximately 1,350 complaints last year. The single largest type of complaint in all areas of law is dissatisfaction with legal services.

Holmes says that approximately 50 to 60 per cent of all complaints fall into the category of “quality of service,” which he describes as “a consumer satisfaction problem.” Very serious complaints such as lying, cheating and stealing are relatively rare.

To find out the straight goods on what clients like and what they don’t like about their lawyers and services, we spoke to lay people, corporate counsel and small business owners. And once they got talking, we heard an earful. Comments ran the gamut, from “my lawyer is a real mensch,” about a family law practitioner who went to great lengths to win a case, to “he’s a bad human being, driven by money,” about an immigration lawyer who pocketed US$100 in cash up front from the client.

Many clients spoke very candidly about the best qualities and the biggest faults of the lawyers they’ve dealt with and, more importantly, they shared practical advice about how to deal with various issues. While many of their complaints may seem like no-brainers, clients say these things continue to happen on a regular basis.

Here are some of the more common complaints that can send clients running to your competition:

Unclear and Infrequent Communication

In a profession that relies so heavily on words, it’s intriguing that lack of communication is one of the things clients complained about most. Complaints about speaking “legalese,” misunderstandings over expectations, and not having calls returned in a timely manner highlight just a few of clients’ complaints and indicate their desire for their lawyers to be better communicators.

“Sometimes what I think ought to be simple is made into quite a complex answer,” says Norman Greenberg, managing director of Affirmative Industries Association in Halifax. While he understands that lawyers need to provide clients with all the potential ramifications of their choices, he says that often lawyers have several meetings to try to resolve what might be resolved in a simpler way. It may be difficult to know how far along that road to go, but “sometimes I feel like it goes too far.”

Greenberg also advises lawyers to “tell your clients you’re going to be speaking legalese and be willing to break it down into smaller terms if needed.” He adds that sometimes a client has no idea what you’ve just said, but he knows it’s going to cost him extra to have it explained so he keeps quiet, “figuring he’s got this expert who knows what he’s talking about.”

One corporate counsel in Mississauga, Ont., speaking on condition of anonymity, cites lack of responsiveness as one of her pet peeves. “That drives me ballistic. I do not like to have to chase down folks and get reporting letters or find out what’s happening when I’ve provided them with instructions to do something.” She adds that it really irks her to have to send a lawyer an e-mail to find out the status of one of her files: “Then I’ve got to spend my money to pay for their time to read that e-mail to get them to do what they told me they were going to do anyway.”

It’s fine to tell your clients you’re busy, but let them know that their matter is at the top of your to-do list. The worst thing a lawyer can tell you is “‘gosh, I’m so busy, I’m swamped, I have so much to do,’” says Anne Giardini, assistant general counsel at Weyerhaeuser Co. Ltd. in Vancouver. “You can just hear your matter ratcheting down the stairs to the basement.”

Schedule an hour with your client to go over the matter, or alternatively, tell him or her you’re giving it to your highly skilled colleague. Say “I won’t charge you for the time I spend instructing so and so, but he or she will do a bang-up job and please let me know how that went,” Giardini advises. That way the client has a plan and knows the timing of it, what’s going on and that the matter is a priority.

Be very clear about what your client wants to achieve. Clarify, set and meet expectations. Lawyers tend to look at problems from a legal mindset and clients may not see things the same way. Look at what the client’s ultimate goals are, because often lawyers want to throw every piece of ammunition they can against a case, but that might not be what the client’s intention or they don’t want to pay for it.

Don’t tell your client, “Gee, I don’t know,” says Giardini. “If I phoned you and you’re with a reputable firm, there’s a reason I did that, and either I have confidence that you’ll know the answer or that you’ll figure it out. If three or four times I talk to someone and they do that, that’s the last time I’m going to call. I’m now doubting my own judgment and the person’s ability because they don’t seem to have confidence in their own ability.”

Lawyers shouldn’t be afraid to ask clients directly for business. Martin Guest, vice-president, corporate counsel at Fidelity Investments Canada Ltd. in Toronto, is amazed at how inept lawyers can be at marketing themselves. He appreciates it when someone says, “I think I’m very good at what I do and I’d love the opportunity to do some work for you.” He’s often asked to lunch or to sporting events by outside lawyers, but, he adds, “don’t assume I’m going to throw you legal work as some kind of quid pro quo for lunch.”

Speed of Service

Clients want lawyers to tell them how long a project might take. Often what “seems to be a pretty easy, straightforward issue ends up dragging out for months because the lawyer has other, bigger projects they’re working on. They download it to a more junior person and it gets lost in the shuffle,” says Dianne Kelderman, president of the Atlantic Provinces’ Chambers of Commerce in Truro, N.S. “It can be very bureaucratic…and the longer it takes, the more expensive it is.” She’d like to see lawyers “give some sense up front of the time commitment and then stick to that.”

“I like it when my lawyer asks ‘when does this have to be dealt with, what’s the speed on this, what’s the urgency?’” says Giardini. “I very seldom encounter a good lawyer who doesn’t get the work done in a timely fashion once they understand clearly what ‘timely’ means to me.”

Giardini says that one of her favourite lawyers has a three-minute turnaround. Once she hangs up the phone, his goal is to call her back within three minutes. “If he’s in a meeting or on another call and he sees my message, as soon as that’s over it will be three minutes.” She describes him as “a miracle worker.”

On the flip side of the coin, Giardini complains about litigators who are last-minute drafters and filers. She wants them to be more participatory in how they handle a matter and draft pleadings and documents early enough that she has time to thoroughly review them and make amendments before they actually get filed. “The typical litigator drafts at midnight for the nine o’clock filing the next morning. And that doesn’t give me a ton of time to get involved in it.”

In-house counsel complain about how long it can take major firms to clear conflicts. Two weeks is too long, says Francine Swanson, Q.C., senior legal counsel at BP Canada Energy Co. in Calgary, and the new president of the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association. While being aware of how complicated clearing conflicts can be in the wake of so many major law firm mergers, Swanson says a week is more reasonable. And in a clear conflict situation, lawyers should know better than to ask their in-house counsel to clear them.

“It wastes our time and puts us in an awkward position,” says Swanson. Sometimes it’s “something so fundamental we have to ask ourselves do they understand our business? Do they understand the transaction? Do they understand what we’re doing at all?”

Guest refuses to work with lawyers who are “unproductive, overly technical, impractical and insensitive to my business needs.” The most frustrating outside counsel experience he had involved two partners in the same law firm who started to look at very obscure technical issues on a file. They were “both on my clock, arguing with each other about obscure academic issues for days.” He ended up arguing with his own lawyers, “trying to persuade them how to finalize a document, meanwhile paying umpteen hundreds of dollars an hour. That scares me away.”

Huge Bills and Unexplained Costs

Clients have two main complaints about lawyers’ bills—the cost and lawyers’ failure to explain what’s on the bill.

Many lay people and business people expressed shock at how much legal bills can be. Kelderman says she had an equity agreement drawn up recently and assumed it would cost about $2,500. “And lo and behold I got an invoice for $6,000. I just about fell off my chair because I had no idea, there was no discussion of that. The expectations on my part were different obviously than on the lawyer’s.”

She’d like to see a contract that outlines what the lawyer will do, how long it’s going to take and what it’s going to cost. “I think that’s generally why lawyers get such a bad rap because quite often it is open-ended and they’re the ones making the judgment calls along the way and the client ends up at the end being very surprised.”

Clear things with your client first. Don’t send a whopping bill and bring in a lot of extra people without clearing with the client first.

“Don’t go to a hearing and take a junior along and bill me for it unless you’ve cleared it with me,” says Giardini. “Don’t do a whole bunch of research on a basic labour law question when I probably am fixing memos and opinions already. Just talk to me, make sure that’s what’s being done is needed.”

And don’t double up on lawyers. “There are a few law firms where no one in the firm seems to be able to work independently. They always work in pairs, like Siamese twins,” says Giardini. She appreciates it when a lawyer calls her before sending out a surprise bill. “Phone me ahead of time and say ‘look this is going to come, here’s why, phone me and talk about it when you get it.’”

Clients want accurate and detailed descriptions of the work you do. A lot of lawyers use “AA” for attendance at file, phone call or memorandum. Says Swanson, “Clients are looking for a description in the statements of account that explains who the person was talking to on the phone and what generally was the subject matter of that call.” When a client gets an account a month or two later, they want enough information to trigger their memory.

Lack of People Skills

“The general feeling in the community is that lawyers have tremendous ego and attitude,” says Kelderman. Other legal clients who spoke on condition of anonymity agreed, citing rudeness and arrogance as reasons they don’t want to go back to certain lawyers.

Although she considers her general practice lawyer to be competent in handling her personal matters, one Toronto woman describes her lawyer as “condescending, impatient and at times very brusque. She does not seem to want to take the time to listen to my concerns.”

“You have to be damned good at what you do and practically irreplaceable if you’re going to be difficult with your client or have personality issues,” says Giardini.

She remembers one lawyer who visited one of her company’s pulp mills and made jokes she found offensive. “That lawyer was a very good lawyer in his field, but he had a terrible personality, so he was off my list.”

She also dislikes the “John Wayne, ‘don’t worry your pretty little head about it, ma’am, it’s being looked after,’” type of lawyer. “Off they ride into the distance, and who knows what the heck they’re doing?”

On the other hand, Giardini says, a good sense of humour is an absolute plus. “I deal with a lawyer all the time and we laugh about everything. It takes the pressure off and it makes dealing with him a pleasure.”

Clients want to relate on a personal level with their lawyers. David Bilinsky, practice management advisor at the Law Society of British Columbia, advises lawyers to put more of their personality up front.

“Project who you are rather than this persona of ‘the lawyer, the suit’; be prepared to be real, show that you’re human. Have pictures of your family around,” says Bilinsky. “It’s a risk that some people aren’t going to like the kind of person that you are. So be it. On the other hand, you may find that your clients are drawn to you because of the kind of personality that you have and the kind of things that you do.”

Lack of Ethics and Good Old-fashioned Manners

Keep clients informed as to who’s working on their file. “Simple introductions go a long way,” says Swanson. And with so many people working on virtual teams, often in-house counsel doesn’t meet some of the lawyers working for them. Although face-to-face meetings are ideal, even meeting clients over e-mail or by phone is acceptable. Swanson suggests that lawyers compile and send out a list with the names of everyone who’ll be working on a file.

If you’ve dropped the ball on something or you’ve made promises you can’t keep, make sure you let your client know. And don’t let it slide because you’re embarrassed. “The damage that a cover-up can do is far worse than the original problem,” says Swanson. “When you’re caught lying, you lose credibility.”

What Clients Really Want

A good lawyer is one who really gets it, says Giardini. “A good lawyer wants to know the texture of my company—how it works, what its soul is, what its values are, where we stand on issues.”

The best lawyers keep clients in the loop. They understand how interventionist clients want them to be in a matter and continue to gauge that throughout the retainer. “They keep you informed, not just as to the progress of a matter, but as to its texture,” says Giardini. “How it’s really going, what the nuances are, what the shadings and colorings and what their gut tells them.”

Clients want you to spend the time to learn their business. It will save time, money, aggravation and potential mistakes over the long term if you know as much as possible about what they do. Learn about their products, acronyms and more so that you can put legal analysis on top of facts.

“There is this connection that you get with some lawyers—they’re so good, they have so much experience, so much training, they have so much good judgment that you trust them completely,” says Swanson.

These lawyers connect not only on an intellectual level, but also on a personal level. “When they walk in the room, everybody feels good. It’s good to have them around, what they say is always well thought out. Even in a brainstorming session, their comments are the best-considered comments. They’re not gratuitous. What they’re saying is related to the issue and it’s well thought out and it’s based on solid reasoning. You know you’re in good hands and you know things will be okay.”

Swanson has a few lawyers that she would describe as trusted advisors—and that trust goes beyond just giving good legal advice. “It’s the sense that they create for you personally — but also for the team, the project — that things are under control. That whatever comes at you, you will handle it and you will handle it properly.”

Giardini describes what she admires about one of her lawyers: “Whatever I bring to him, no matter how arcane, he always says ‘you know, I was just thinking about that the other day.’ That’s pure gold. There’s not enough money to pay for that. He inspires confidence and he’s responsive. And you get the impression that your problem is the single most important thing on his mind.”

Ann Macaulay is a Toronto writer.