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5 Engagement Vows For A New Client – Part II

Previously we took a look at 5 non-traditional “vows” that a new client can make to her attorney at the start of an engagement – promises that don’t usually appear in a standard engagement letter.   Today, we’ll consider a few non-traditional vows the lawyer can make to her client.

Lawyer Vow #1: I promise to always give you a complete, honest assessment of your matter – including  prospects for success and realistic estimates of both anticipated costs-to-resolution and time frames for results.

Back when I practiced law, I worked with a smart, extremely wealthy client who’d get angry fast.   He’d go off on grandiose tirades and would dream up highly sophisticated commercial litigation strategies.    About 5% of the time, he’d offer up something completely legitimate and brilliant.   The rest of the time, I could comfortably (and quickly) dismiss his theories as utterly ridiculous.

Facing reality early is usually the best way to solve any problem, legal or otherwise. Nobody does anyone any favors by constantly planning on the emergence of “best case” scenarios, playing “yes man”, or letting the client hold onto unrealistic expectations. This is particularly true in litigated matters, when clients often envision aggressively litigating (nominally “for the principle”) with very little appreciation for the actual speed of the process, the time and work required in motion practice and discovery, and the sometimes arbitrary nature of actual results.

Lawyer Vow #2: “I will ensure that we communicate regularly.”

The corollary:  When I promise you a call-back, a draft of a document, or a meeting at a particular time or within a certain time frame, I will honor it.

Emergencies happen, but true emergencies are rare, and in those cases the lawyer should do everything possible to make certain the client’s matter is well handled and that the client’s personal time and plans are respected.

When clients see that the lawyer reliably does keep her word (and vice-versa), it’s amazing how communication frustrations – frequently involving too many calls or too many emails – can magically decline.

Lawyer Vow #3: When you ask me for advice, I will give a clear, concise recommendation.

Somewhere along the line, some professionals starting changing from trusted advisors into just option generators.

Mike: “Thanks doc, I understand the options, what do you think I should do?”
Dr. Milquetoast: “You can choose to do any one of those things I just detailed.”
Mike: “Got it, but based on your experience, your professional judgment, your knowledge of me, what do you think is the best course?”
Dr. Milquetoast: “It’s really your decision, everyone is different.”
Mike: “What would you do if you were me?”
Dr. Milquetoast: “Well, I can’t really say because I’m not you.”

When I engage a lawyer, I want the lawyer to draw upon her knowledge and experience to analyze the situation and give me a recommendation. I understand when things are my decision, and I want to be talked through the various options and nuances. However, I want my counsel to take a stand.

Lawyer Vow #4:  I will provide you with timely, detailed bills.

Yes, this isn’t really “non-standard” – all engagement letters must contain a sufficiently detailed description of the billing process.  However, this particular “vow” is a little more than that.

As a consumer of legal services, I can say there are few worse feelings than getting a new bill from a lawyer that relates to work performed about the time when “Eight Is Enough” was a top-rated TV show.

Getting a big bill is bad (and should really never happen unexpectedly), but getting a stale bill can be worse.   Sending bills out on time is professional, it’s a good check on yourself to make sure that you’re regularly communicating with your client, it confirms to the client that you value your own work and time, and in many instances makes it easier for the client to actually pay the bill – particularly if the client is a big business.  (Getting stale bills processed in a corporate environment can be a challenge indeed.)

What additional non-standard “vows” would you suggest a lawyer consider making at the start of an engagement?