What Really Makes Clients Want to Pay Your Bills
The idea that something as superficial as a form letter or a thank-you note could make clients thrilled to pay your bills is silly. In fact, the idea that clients will ever be happy to pay your bills is probably wishful thinking. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been thunk.
I’m all for improving your bills to better inform your clients. But don’t kid yourself that better task descriptions or fancy letterhead will do the trick. There is no trick to having happy clients; they are the result of hard work, good communication, and good choices.
Do good work
This should go without saying, but it doesn’t always. Some lawyers seem to consider the actual, substantive legal work just a chore to get out of the way. But every client — even a client who hired you because you were cheaper than another lawyer — wants top-notch legal work. That means you need to do your best for every client.
Keep your client informed
Doing good work is the most important part of being a lawyer, but communicating with your clients is probably the most important part of keeping them happy. I often hear that bad communication (or the lack of communication in general) is a primary source of ethics complaints.
That means communicating with your clients and keeping them informed about all aspects of the representation is probably one of the best ways to have satisfied clients who won’t complain to the ethics board.
I think it is important to communicate about all aspects of the representation, not just the legal issues. For example, Scott Greenfield recently wrote about a client who was so upset at the idea that his lawyers might get more out of a settlement than he would (due to attorney fees) that he refused a great settlement offer (and ultimately got far less at trial).
My clients in contingent-fee matters frequently got less than I did, mainly because the damages were statutory and small, and I had a right to recover my attorney fees and costs. Because of that, I started talking to my clients about fees from the first meeting, and we continued to talk about fees throughout the case. Maybe the lawyers in the above case did that, too, but I only ever had one client who was upset about the numbers, and even he acknowledged that it turned out just as I said it might.
Your goal is to prevent surprise. Not just on the bill, but in everything that happens. The better you can predict the future and communicate your predictions to your client, the happier she will be with the representation (well, probably not if you do shoddy work and all your predictions are wrong).
Above all, choose your clients carefully
The hardest but best way to get clients who are happy with you is to learn which clients not to represent. There are some rules of thumb, like people who think they know the law better than you, or who have already fired several lawyers, but you just have to learn for yourself what will be your yellow and red flags.
It is hard to turn down clients, but one of my mentors once told me that you make your money on the clients you don’t take. It’s a cliche, but it’s true. Saying no to problem clients is the most profitable thing you can do.
Nobody will ever be happy to pay your bill
In all honesty, though, nobody will ever be happy to pay your bill. Your bills are probably quite large, at least on the scale of things your client pays for. It will often be for a problem your client would rather not have had to hire you to deal with. And even if your client is happy with the work you did, they probably would be happier spending that money on a vacation.
In the end, even the happiest clients probably won’t be all that happy about your bills.