Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.
I’ve written about warning signs that a potential new client may be a train wreck waiting to happen to your law practice. If you pay attention to such warnings, then you may find yourself wondering just how to turn clients away without creating offense. That’s just what one of my clients struggled with recently. Here are my thoughts and thoughts from other attorneys, too.
How NOT to Turn Clients Away
Attorneys have a variety of ways that they handle potentially undesirable clients. Here are 3 methods that I do NOT recommend using to decline the representation.
1. Don’t: Just quote a high retainer
Some lawyers suggest that you require a very high retainer or high hourly rate, which will probably scare the client away. However, what will you do if they pull out their credit card, ready to pay your high fees? At least you’ll get paid handsomely for dealing with a difficult client, say those folks. We’ve all dealt with difficult clients before at standard or even discounted rates, so this would be an improvement.
I think there are already enough stressful aspects to the practice of law without taking on clients that your gut tells you to avoid. You may wind up with demanding and unreasonable clients, who now have a high expectation of getting what they want because they are “paying through the nose” for it. Those “Grade C and D” clients tend to take up more of your time, leaving less time to render excellent service to the “Grade A” clients that you want more of. Your stress and irritation also negatively affect how you deal with everyone else, including those at home. On top of all that, some difficult clients will never be satisfied and are more likely to file a grievance.
But what if you really need the money this month? Should you go for the higher rate and just bear with that unpleasant personality? Jerry Tidwell Jr., a family law practitioner in McKinney, Texas, gave some good advice in a Facebook discussion group. He said,
“While I am not saying you have to like or be friends with your clients, I do think you have to empathize with their circumstance in order to adequately or zealously represent [them]. I don’t think empathy can come from thinking of clients as just paychecks….In that transaction there will never be honest or frank discussions, and always be distrust in both client and attorney. All are best served if attorneys turned away fees that gave them an uncomfortable feeling.”
2. Don’t: Make up a conflict
Claiming a conflict might discourage their interest in your services, but it also might raise suspicion and lead to more questions. More importantly, it involves lying, which I do not advocate. Rule 8.4 of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct provides that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to “engage in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”
3. Don’t: Disregard the risk of offense
Some lawyers say that we need to get beyond trying to be nice, because that’s what often causes us to wind up with undesirable clients in the first place. That perspective assumes that you have to choose between being be considerate and holding a boundary. You can stand firm with utmost kindness.
When your gut is already telling you that the client could be trouble, in this age of social media, an offended potential client might damage your reputation by venting to the world. I would even suggest that the abruptness of some lawyers has given our profession a bad name, making things more difficult for all of us. We need to remember that most clients come to us because they have a stressful situation and need our help, even though they themselves may not be very admirable in the way they deal with their suspicions and fears during their interactions with us. Turn clients away with grace to avoid creating additional discomfort for them or yourself.
How to Gracefully Hold a Boundary
First remember that the main thing the client wants is a solution to their problem. They actually want someone who will be comfortable working with their personality and their problem, and who can get them the best results possible. Chances are that if you aren’t comfortable, they aren’t really either. If you know others who would like to handle their matter, turn clients away with a referral to someone else. You are being of ultimate service to both attorney and client in making such a referral.
Elizabeth Stanley Pagel, a family law attorney in Humble, Texas says it this way:
“I appreciate you coming in to see me today, but I don’t think I would be the best attorney to represent you. I’d be happy to give you some names of other attorneys in the area who might be a better fit for you.”
Some attorneys make reference to their schedules, which won’t allow them to take “this kind of case.” That is true because you won’t allow your schedule to be derailed by a low fee case or the undue attention that a demanding, overly needy or deceitful client will likely require, even if your main focus will be on networking and marketing for good new clients. Others may reference some aspect of the matter that another attorney may have more experience in or more familiarity with the local rules or judges.
I, myself, occasionally receive calls from potential clients that don’t feel like a good fit because (i) I think they would clash with my style, (ii) they want a lot of exceptions to my preferred schedule, (iii) they would require a lot of extra work on my part, or (iv) they need expertise outside my wheelhouse of talents. I refer them to other lawyer-coaches because I know I can do a better job for clients that I look forward to helping. I truly want them to have the right fit. By expressing my care and concern for their interests, I’m able to turn away clients without giving offense or creating negative repercussions.
When you convey that you have their best interests in mind, clients are likely to appreciate your integrity and respect you for directing them elsewhere, instead of just taking their money. Some lawyers have actually received good referrals from clients they turned away! Just remember to do your CYA by sending a non-engagement letter or email reminding them of potential statutes of limitations, and wishing them luck in their endeavors.
I would love to receive your input. If you have successfully turned potential clients away (or wish that you had), I invite you to share your experience and advice below in the comments.
This post was adapted from an article by the author originally published in the April 24, 2014 issue of the Solo Practice University Blog.
Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.
Is running your law practice growing to more than you can handle, but maybe not enough for full-time help? As a prudent business person, perhaps you aren’t ready to make the commitment to hire more staff or to lease additional space to accommodate them. If you find yourself working too many long hours just to keep up, and doing work that you should be delegating, maybe it’s time to experiment with a virtual paralegal or virtual administrative assistant. Virtual workers can permit you to flexibly expand and contract your office staff as your needs fluctuate on a project by project basis.
Confidentiality and Security
Some lawyers worry about confidentiality and security when they can’t look over the shoulder of an employee. Cathy Ribble, owner of Digital Paralegal Services, LLC, says her firm has training concerning confidentiality and security. When an assignment is completed, any printed documents are shredded, returned to the lawyer, or shipped to a third party at the lawyer’s direction. They use password protected, secure internet network connections and their electronic devices are password protected. “I avoid open forums for calendar and document collaboration tools published for the general internet public. There are many secure, encrypted and password-protected alternatives for collaboration,” says Ribble.
Andrea Cannavina, CEO of Legal Typist, Inc., emphasizes that selecting the right technology and the right people are important elements of protecting clients. Most of their digital assistants have over 10 years of experience in a traditional law firm setting. Most such organizations work with independent contractors, so make sure subcontractors are required to enter into confidentiality agreements. Subcontractors for Legal Typist “have to separately initial a confidentiality clause in the [independent contractor] agreement,” says Cannavina.
Range of Services
Virtual legal assistants can handle just about everything your traditional assistant does. I use a virtual assistant in my business, and she even brings me coffee sometimes. (She’s local and usually comes into my office about once a week, stopping by Starbucks on the way.) Ribble describes the virtual services she offers by saying, “I find myself providing the same paralegal support I provided while working in a traditional law firm.” She rarely meets lawyers face to face.
Here are some examples of the work that specialized virtual legal assistants and virtual paralegals may handle: transcription of dictation or handwritten notes; initial draft transcriptions of pleadings, motions, letters, blog posts, stipulations and interviews; revisions to the foregoing; case and deadline management; document review and organization; pleading preparation, review local court rules, electronic court filings, electronic and mail service of document copies; assistance with legal briefs (citation review, editing, table of authorities, table of contents, binding, printing and/or digital formats); coordination of service of process; billing assistance; internet research and investigation; document production, bates numbering and other discovery tasks; and preparation of hearing notebooks. Some assistants will communicate directly with your clients via telephone or email. Others only interact with the attorney’s office.
Cannavina’s company focuses on digital dictation, but that’s not as limiting as it may sound. “Our clients don’t just use us for documents – think of dictation like speaking your needs – we do calendaring, opening new electronic case files, adding contacts and such – mostly for our clients who also use Clio,” explains Cannavina.
Does your virtual assistant or paralegal need to work in the same jurisdiction where you practice? They don’t have licensure requirements, so they aren’t legally limited to any particular jurisdiction. Legal Typist works nationwide, but they limit their practice to the U.S. for security reasons. They keep all their processes and technology on U.S. soil. While being in the same jurisdiction is helpful, Ribble believes “practice area trumps jurisdiction. A well-trained experienced paralegal can use basic practice area skills to research a new jurisdiction’s requirements.”
Delivery of Documents and Information
Depending on the type of services provided, virtual workers may accept automated telephone dictation, web upload of text and audio files, email, overnight shipment of documents, and even regular U.S. mail. Some services handle only digital documents and don’t do any courthouse or electronic filings. Virtual assistants and paralegals may also work with your online law practice management software, which can enhance your ability to track the progress of projects.
Although the hourly rate paid to virtual paralegals and digital assistants usually exceeds the hourly rate of similarly skilled employees, the law firm may actually experience a cost savings. As every virtual service provider emphasizes, the lawyer pays only for actual time worked, and does not have to pay for overtime, vacation time, sick time, coffee breaks, training or professional development expenses, personal phone call time, payroll taxes, health insurance or retirement benefits. The attorney is also spared the cost of providing an office, furniture, computer, software and equipment for the worker. There are no repair, maintenance, insurance or property tax costs for those items, either.
In general, virtual paralegal rates range between $30 and $65 per hour. Some virtual paralegals charge 25% to 30% of the lawyer’s hourly rate. Some have volume discounts. Prices for virtual legal transcription services are measured in many different formats. The price may be quoted based on the number of words, pages or minutes of recorded audio or even a flat monthly fee. The rate may be influenced by the volume of work contracted for, the clarity of the recording, the number of speakers per recording, or the requested turnaround time.
Conflicts of Interest
Lawyers may worry about how they will manage conflict checking when they use a virtual service. Conflicts haven’t come up for Digital Paralegal Services, due mainly to the different geographical locations from which the work comes. Cannavina reports “in the 10+ years I’ve been a VA, I have not encountered one conflict.” Both companies have a policy of requiring subcontractors to stop work immediately and report to them if they encounter a familiar name.
Nevertheless, all parties should be vigilant about protecting against conflicts of interest. “The rules are no different for a Virtual Paralegal and Virtual Administrative Assistant than for a paralegal, legal secretary or anyone else working under the supervision of an attorney in the brick and mortar setting,” says Vicki Voisin, the self-styled “Paralegal Mentor.” She frequently writes and speaks on ethical issues for paralegals.
Rule 5.3 of the ABA Model Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct requires that lawyers with supervisory authority over nonlawyers make “reasonable efforts to ensure that the person’s conduct is compatible with the professional obligations of the lawyer.” Voisin recommends that all types of virtual assistants “maintain a detailed conflicts log that includes the name of the firm and attorney they’re working with, the name of the case and the parties to the action, and any other parties involved.” They should also be aware of “personal conflicts they might have: relatives/friends on the opposing side, stock or business interests that might be a conflict, cases they worked on in previous employment, etc.” says Voisin.
Ribble says she prefers to work with paralegals certified by the National Association of Legal Assistants because they “must meet certain ethics requirements within their CLE credits, so the attorney is assured of a baseline understanding of [the attorney’s ethical requirements].” There are a number of other certifying organizations for paralegals and legal assistants.
If you are now ready to dip your toe into the virtual pool, you can think of the guidance in this article as your virtual floaties. Happy swimming!
© 2011 Debra L. Bruce. Adapted from an article by the author originally published in the September 2011 issue of the Texas Bar Journal.
Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.
This year is almost over. As you think about next year, do you have things you want to do differently? Have you started contemplating your New Year’s Resolutions yet? Do you notice some of the same items on your list that you had last year? Perhaps you are a victim of “the power of habit.”
New York Times business reporter, Charles Duhigg, published an excellent book called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business in 2012. He summarized research by neuroscientists on habits and provided illuminating case studies of how people and companies broke bad habits and transformed their futures. Using the research and principles Duhigg described, I’ll provide some guidance on how you can look at the patterns in your life to design structures for better habits in the future. Read more «Overcome Bad Habit Loops»
Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.
When you’re searching for solutions to personnel problems in the office, take steps to make sure you have accurately identified the source of the problem.You need to uncover obstacles to good performance by your office staff by being sure they have the necessary training, optimal equipment and clear instructions.
What if you’ve done all of these things, but you’re still getting poor performance? Is it time to terminate him? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Have you had difficulty finding anyone who could perform these job responsibilities well? Have you had trouble keeping the talent who did perform well? You might first verify that you are paying a competitive salary. If you are underpaying the market, talented personnel may not be attracted to the position, or they may parlay the experience and training they get in your office to a higher paying job. Read more «“We Have Met the Enemy, and He is Us”»