5 tips for Client Communication – Model Rule 1.4 updates confirm “early and often” is best.
I was recently conducting a CLE seminar on Risk Management, Legal Ethics and Professional Liability for a local Bar Association. When we started discussing updates to Georgia Rule of Professional Conduct 1.4 (Communication), I was surprised that less than 20% of participants knew about the recent Rule update.
The Georgia Bar adopted something closer to the ABA model rule of professional conduct. Now GRPC 1.4 more clearly defines what, when, and how you should communicate. Following their own Rules, the Georgia Bar even created GRPC 1.0 (Terminology) which defines terms like confirmed in writing, informed consent, and writing/written.
Although the GRPC 1.4 deals with how we communicate with clients, don’t lose sight of the fact that good communication also involves active listening. As my good friend, Senior Judge Ralph Hill from the Lookout Mountain Circuit recently reminded me, communication, more importantly, involves listening to clients more than we speak to them.
You can click here to read the new Communication Rule, but here are 5 things you can do to help avoid conflict and improve the quality of your client communications:
- Set objectives. Just like any other business initiative, you need to have a defined end point in order to be successful. Discuss each client’s goals and expected outcomes. After carefully listening to a client, set realistic objectives, including the projected financial investment and strategy required to achieve them. Then manage to those objectives. If anything changes (doesn’t it always) related to the case or client demands, change the objectives to document the course adjustment.
- Communicate early and often. Keep oral and written communications clear, concise, congenial, and timely to the circumstances. Also, keep it factual, but not too technical. You don’t want to impede the client’s ability to make an informed decision and give their informed consent by communicating in legalese. Explain and give examples, but state that you are explaining. Express opinions, but specifically state that as well, and make clear that opinions may vary. Provide equal priority, emphasis and energy to good news and bad news. You don’t want a client later saying you left out an important element or failed to communicate in a timely manner, preventing her from making an important decision.
- Copy your clients on everything. Why not operate in a fully transparent environment? Your clients will be able to see everything that you’re doing, helping justify those fees. By sending them a copy of what you send out as well as what you receive from the other side, it automatically keeps clients up to date, providing a roadmap and helping them see progress toward clearly defined objectives. It’s also easier than producing separate summaries. No letter of explanation is necessarily required when you copy a client on a communication, although a sentence or two of explanation may be helpful.
- Utilize engagement letters with every client. Define the beginning point, objectives, scope of work, payment terms, and end point (disengagement letter). If the “beginning” never occurs, issue non-engagement letters. Every relevant consultation ought to have some go or no-go documentation. Periodically review your prospect file and issue appropriate letters to avoid getting burned by an implied relationship.
- Assume all communication is client communication. Anything you write about a client (paper or electronic) may be seen at some point by that client, whether on purpose or by accident. Don’t ever write something that you don’t want to be cross examined about under oath on the stand.
Finally, if a client asks you to do something you ethically, morally, or legally can’t do, immediately communicate that and let him/her know specifically why you can’t. For example, if a client reveals she is going to lie during her deposition, advise her that doing so would create a conflict because you can not condone such actions under the GRPC.
Then don’t forget to send the disengagement letter if the client insists on the improper behavior.