Many complaints received by the Legal Services Commission could be easily avoided with improved communication between legal practitioners and the clients.
Communication barriers with clients may include:
- Not keeping the client informed and updated on their matter or relevant changes within the firm that may impact the client.
- Not informing the client when costs change or the matter is passed to another legal practitioner within the firm.
- Using legal terminology and not explaining terms and process in a way the client can understand.
- Failing to respond to the client's questions and enquires.
- Not being contactable.
- Not understanding the client's needs and the desired outcome for their matter.
- Not successfully managing the client's expectations.
Improving communication with clients may be as simple as:
- Clarifying expectations both verbally and in writing.
- Continuing to keep the client informed as the matter progresses.
- Providing the client with regular written communications.
- Avoiding unnecessary legal terms and complicated language.
- Clearing explaining costs and any changes or updates as they occur.
- Responding to client communications and concerns in a timely manner.
- Being considerate of client's concerns and priorities.
- Ensuring good management and administrative practices so nothing is overlooked and key dates are not missed.
The Legal Services Commission often receives complaints from people who feel their legal practitioner inadequately informed them of the progress of their matter, or believe that what happened in their matter was different from what they were led to expect.
Based on the experiences of the Legal Services Commission, a client invariably seeks answers to the following questions at the commencement of the matter, and at regular intervals as the matter progresses.
- What are my options?
- What are my changes of success?
- What will it cost?
- What is the process?
- How long will it take?
When clarifying client expectations it is important for both the legal practitioner and the client to understand:
- The outcomes the client believes the legal practitioner can deliver (the client's expectations).
- Any expectations the legal practitioner may have of the client.
- What the client will be required to do to ensure their matter progresses satisfactorily.
This information may need to be updated and reassessed as the matter progresses.
For continuing communication success, it is important to establish clear, regular communications and provide timely updates and feedback to clients.
Costs disclosure is required for any matter where fees will exceed $1500.00
The client agreement provides a basis for communication and agreement on a number of aspects of the client’s matter, but should never be relied upon as the only or primary means of communication. There should be regular communication at appropriate intervals as the matter progresses. The objective of regular client communication should ensure the client:
- receives essential information
- is able to follow and understand the progress being made with their matter
- is aware of and agrees to potential costs associated with the legal services being provided.
Direct discussion to support written communication is always wise – particularly for complex or critical matters. This will help to confirm both parties have a common understanding of what is to occur and confirm what has been written.
Throughout the matter there will be much written communication.
Communicating in writing is an important professional skill. Good written communication is recognised by clear, actionable information and messages. A clear style should be used for both client communication and for communication with other lawyers and professionals involved in the case.
Written communication to clients should not involve the use of unnecessarily complex legal terms or language or it should provide an explanation of what the legal terms mean.
Essential information should never be allowed to become lost in the fine print.
The following best practice checklist provides communications recommendations for legal practitioners when interacting with clients.
- Communicate regularly with clients including notifying them of any developments and updates.
- Clearly explain things to clients including legal terms and processes that may be common to lawyers but foreign to most clients.
- Seek feedback from clients that demonstrates they have understand key terms and processes.
- Establish practice management systems that enable timely responses to client enquiries and complaints.
- Provide regular updates to clients on any increases in costs.
- Keep all matters confidential and refuse to act on another matter where it may compromise client confidentiality.
- Provide an itemised bill clearly showing the work performed and amount charged.
- Establish expectations early and continuously throughout the matter.
- List and prioritise key matter dates and events.
Effective communication also involves being considerate of a client’s concerns and priorities and practising good management and administration. This will minimise complaints and support a case if a complaint is made.