Rule of the Road No. 10: A trial lawyer must treat clients with respect.
One of the best way to improve your chances of being a defendant in a disciplinary proceeding or legal malpractice case is by treating a client with disrespect. Even if the client is a disreputable person who doesn’t deserve your respect, show the client respect for you own protection if not for the client’s benefit. Treating a client with respect includes, at a minimum, the following:
• Don’t take phone calls or allow other interruptions while you’re meeting with a client. Stay off your smartphone or other electronic device when you are meeting with the client.
• Be prompt – don’t keep the client waiting. If you’re late, clients will conclude that you’re disorganized and disrespectful.
• Do what you say that you are going to do. If you make a commitment to your client, follow through or call the client and explain why if it appears that you will not able to meet the commitment.
• Confirm advice in writing – this protects you and the client and will immediately flush out any misunderstandings. See Rule of the Road No. 3, above.
• Evaluate and communicate risks to clients in person, followed by a writing. At a minimum, that habit of routinely communicating risks in writing forces you to think through those risks and clearly articulate them to the client. See Rule of the Road No. 3, above.
These principles may seem obvious and common sense, but it is surprising how many lawyers violate the basics of simple courtesy.
This series has covered just some of the Rules of the Road that, if you follow, will help you to protect your clients and, happily, minimize your risk for being sued for malpractice or being the respondent in a lawyer discipline matter. Remember: complaints by unhappy clients are inevitable and you do not have any control over whether someone complains or files a lawsuit.
What you do have control over is your systems, how you conduct yourself day-to-day and how you treat other people. Adopting and adhering to practice standards that place the client first is a good baseline to protect both you and your clients.
If you acknowledge the risks and your own fallibility exercise some common sense and take steps to protect yourself and your client, you will minimize the risks of a malpractice suit. In addition, if the client sues you, you’ll have put yourself in the best possible position to defend that lawsuit.