Call them, maybe?

Issue December 2014

Q: Although I've been practicing law for more than 30 years, and I think I am quite good at the kind of work I do (specific types of litigation), I have been feeling increasingly incompetent when it comes to handling my relationships with clients and, in some cases, other lawyers - especially since leaving a firm to establish my own practice. In some cases, clients are not paying me even when I've done a yeoman's job for them, so I'm necessarily in the process of cutting my overhead and have built some debt. But my biggest problem, which has mushroomed, is of not returning clients' calls. Sidestepping calls means not having to face their complaints, demands, expressions of stress and anger (which happens less than I often expect). Then, the longer calls go unanswered, the more I feel I've failed by ignoring them, which makes it even harder. I am not late on any necessary legal tasks, filings, etc. But every client views him or herself as the most important one, and I may not have answers for them when they call. I certainly know that this is a bad pattern, and is likely to generate complaints, but the allure of avoiding many calls can be irresistible. Advice?

A: You are facing multiple challenges from which you were more insulated when employed by a firm; for now we will focus on the issue of delaying calls back to clients. The problem you describe is all too common, though the particular psychological obstacles vary from one lawyer to another. As you say, when clients feel ignored (even though you are actually handling the cases in a timely enough manner) they are more likely to complain or find fault.

An outline of some approaches that you may find helpful could include:

  • Reminding yourself daily of the delayed rewards of getting these calls off your to-do list, and relying on your prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain that allows you to think through your decisions) to override the more gut-level immediate rewards of avoidance (not having to face something that you perceive as stressful). You could make and post a list.
  • Manipulating self-reward contingencies - for example, "I get to leave the office and have dinner after I've responded to today's calls" (except when there is a truly good reason to delay).
  • Emailing or voice-mailing (by calling when odds are that the recipient is unavailable) can be a much briefer and more manageable way to get back to them.
  • Initiating contact yourself on a fairly frequent basis, whenever you've given a case even a tiny bit of attention, so that clients have a sense that their case is not being neglected.
  • Examining and challenging your "automatic thoughts" or "self-talk." For example, you might (without even noticing it) be telling yourself, "This client will be angry or lose respect for me because I have not yet contacted the opposing attorney; this means I am not doing a good enough job," while a more accurate statement, which you could practice repeating to yourself might be, "This client is anxious about the case, and will calm down upon learning that things are proceeding at a typical pace," or, "If the client is angry, that is not about me but the situation - they'd like everything to be done immediately, but that is neither necessary nor feasible."
  • When it becomes financially viable, you may be able to hire someone to handle some of whatever tasks are not your strong suits (such as fielding client calls).

All of the above barely scratches the surface. You do not need to be a perfect businessperson or communicator to keep client relationships manageable, but you do need to develop an approach other than avoidance (and more frequent communication will also help you get paid). You can find a way to do so that is built around who you genuinely are, and how you tick, that plays to your strengths and navigates around those functions that come less easily to you. LCL staff is one of your resources (and at no cost) in facing the issue and identifying other sources of assistance. Our affiliated LOMAP program is another.

Questions quoted are either actual letters/emails or paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking assistance from Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. Questions for LCL may be mailed to LCL, 31 Milk St., Suite 810, Boston, MA 02109 or called in to (617) 482-9600. LCL's licensed clinicians will respond in confidence. Visit LCL online at www.lclma.org.