Practical Tips to Avoid Grievances
By: Lisa Danley

If you’re like most other young attorneys, you’ve spent a sleepless night anxious about whether or not you’ve made a serious mistake in a case. You’ve probably wondered whether you might overlook a serious error that could result in a grievance. You may have an incredible mentor and ample malpractice insurance coverage—but grievances happen. Some studies project an average of three grievances per lawyer per career. Three practice areas attract a large majority of grievances—criminal law, family law, and personal-injury law. How can you avoid that fate?

Young lawyers tend to worry most about substantive errors. We think about facing multiple deadlines or preparing for an emergency hearing. What might we overlook? What might “slip through the cracks”?

But experts teach some simple lessons that can help us avoid grievances. The steps sound simple, but the grievance-avoidance results can be very valuable. 

Treat your client like you would want to be treated. The most important lesson is good client communications. Clients don’t sue or grieve against lawyers they like. 

Malcolm Gladwell describes an amazing study in his best-selling book Blink. The study focused on medical malpractice claims and analyzed the communications of two groups of doctors—one group had been sued repeatedly for medical malpractice, the other group had had no malpractice claims. Otherwise, the two groups were the same in terms of education, experience, and skills. Why the difference?

The researchers studied how the doctors communicated with their patients. The doctors who never got sued talked to their patients slightly longer and communicated warmly, and overall, and most importantly, they established a personal relationship with their patients. Their patients liked them. The other doctors were efficient and competent but commanding and autocratic—they treated patients like widgets.

The critical lesson: People don’t sue professionals they like. They don’t sue friends. Likewise, clients don’t sue or grieve against lawyers with whom they develop a personal relationship. They don’t sue lawyers they like.

So how do you get your clients to like you? The steps are easy, if you make the effort:

24 Hour Rule: Return client communications promptly—at least within 24 hours. (Some commentators say that in this age of text-messaging and instant-messaging, 24 hours is too long to wait.) If you’re in trial or otherwise unable to return a client’s phone call, have someone from your office return the phone call and apologize for your unavailability and schedule a time to talk. “Lisa is in trial and she apologizes for not being able to call you herself today but she asked me to set up a convenient time when you two can talk as soon as possible.” According to statistics from the State Bar’s Client Attorney Assistance Program, failure to respond to client calls was the leading cause of client complaints during 2012-2013.

The Bill Clinton Approach: Some people who’ve talked to former President Bill Clinton personally say that when he meets you, even in a crowded room, he focuses on you and you alone. You feel like only he and you are in the room—he asks you questions and he listens to your answers. Clients deserve that attention. When you meet with a client, never, never glance at your cellphone or your computer screen. It’s just you and the client. That’s what clients want and expect and deserve.

Manage Client Expectations: From the very first consult, help the client create a clear list of realistic goals. Prioritize the goals. What legal services can the client afford? What legal strategy is most cost-effective to achieve the client’s goals? Help the client understand what is realistic in terms of costs, fees, time, and results.

Don’t Extend Credit to the Client: Statistics make it clear that many grievances and malpractice suits arise after an attorney tries to collect a fee.  Ensure that your fee arrangement is in writing and that the client pays a retainer realistically related to the work that needs to be done and that the client understands that the retainer must be replenished once it is depleted if you are to continue representation.

While these steps can’t avoid all grievances and malpractice claims, they’ll help avoid most. They also will make our clients more satisfied and our law practice more enjoyable.

Views and opinions expressed in eNews are those of their authors and not necessarily those of the Texas Young Lawyers Association or the State Bar of Texas.

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