Perhaps no business relationship is more important than the attorney-client relationship. As in a marriage, by focusing on realistic expectations and what both sides of that relationship can do to improve it, a more effective and rewarding partnership can be created.
While I certainly do not claim to have all the answers, my 40 years of private practice experience lead me to make the following suggestions for improving that partnership.
1. Forget the Hourly Rate. Many clients focus unnecessarily on what the hourly rate is of the attorney providing the legal services. Such a narrow focus on hourly rate distracts from the real question that should be asked: What result was achieved and what was the cost expended to achieve that result? Nothing else really matters.
On one hand, if you hire an attorney for $200 per hour and he or she takes three hours to research your problem and come back with an answer, and on the other hand, someone else charges $500 per hour, but due to his or her greater experience or expertise can answer that question in 15 minutes, who was more expensive? Ask yourself. Who provided the greater value at the least cost?
Therefore, a client may be well served to forget the hourly rate and focus on whom the most effective advocate may be to perform that particular work. Remember that busy lawyers who expect high hourly rates are in high demand and have many other clients to serve, and therefore little incentive to contemplate spending more time than is necessary to accomplish a desired result.
2. “Preventative Medicine.” Over the years I have found that those clients willing to spend money on legal fees as “preventative medicine” to avoid future problems are oftentimes those who incur the least legal fees over the long run, in that they often avoid sizeable problems as a result. Remember the old doctor’s maxim, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That certainly is the case with respect to legal problems where a consultation concerning a change order dispute, or the review of a subcontract or purchase order before there is a problem can save the client huge amounts of fees that would be incurred if there is a significant dispute that results in arbitration or litigation.
3. Principle Costs! I would have been able to retire long before now if I had a $100 bill for every time a client said, “it’s not the money, it’s the principle of the thing.” Oftentimes those same clients are the ones who end up complaining about the cost in the context of such a “principle case.” Every dispute needs to be thought of as a business problem demanding a business solution, either short-term or long-term. When that business judgment is sacrificed due to emotion or anger (the principle of the thing), the client is unlikely to be satisfied with the result, regardless of how hard the attorney works to achieve it. As a client, if you want to throw business judgment out the window, that is your right, but remember that principle comes with a high price tag in terms of hassle, time, and legal cost.
4. Be Realistic. More than one attorney-client relationship has soured because either the attorney or the client has not been realistic in the initial assessment of the matter. Attorneys are well served to give frank, candid advice to their clients up front so that they can forge realistic expectations as to what the most cost-effective way may be for resolving that dispute. Clients are understandably dismayed to learn that their case is marginal and should be settled on the eve of trial, after considerable legal fees have been spent. Similarly, clients should realize that while every client believes he is right, there are always two sides to every dispute and rare is the case where one side wins everything, including payment of legal fees and expenses incurred along the way. Therefore, a dose of reality up front serves both partners in the relationship well.
5. Provide the Tools. An attorney can not go off to battle and expect to achieve good results for the client without being well armed. A client must provide the tools so that the attorney can do his or her job effectively, by providing the documentation and cooperation to ensure that the attorney receives the knowledge that is needed to effectively present the case. Too often, clients want to send a simple e-mail about the problem to the lawyer and expect the attorney to resolve it. Remember that if the attorney has to do the digging and the background work necessary to learn the facts, that this is simply going to add to the legal bill. Once again, this requires a close working relationship between attorney and client – a true partnership.
6. Expect Service. There are many good lawyers who know the law in a particular area. However, many do not appreciate the fact that any legal matter, no matter how small, is the most important legal matter in the world so far as the client is concerned. Therefore, lawyers will be served to move quickly and timely with respect to their clients’ concerns no matter how small. Any client paying a lawyer’s high hourly rate deserves and expects prompt and personal service.
If a lawyer cannot provide that to a client (where the client truly feels that he or she is the most important client that this attorney has), then perhaps that client needs to look elsewhere for another attorney-client relationship. Lawyers, particularly those involved with litigation, deal with problems for a living. They cannot guarantee success for every client on every problem. However, by providing realistic expectations in a spirit of mutual cooperation and respect, both sides can hopefully forge an effective working relationship that will continue over the years.