September 2010 President's Column
Annoy a Client...Risk a Grievance
By A. Todd Brown
I am reminded often these days of the Mecklenburg County Bar's mission to provide quality services to its 4,300 or so members. But one recent and unexpected telephone conversation with an irate member of the public, a client greatly annoyed with the services provided by an unnamed member of our Bar, served as a sharp reminder that it is critically important for each of us to deliver quality legal services to all of our clients. That call also confirmed that we proceed at our peril by failing to discharge our professional and ethical obligations to our clients, with the end result perhaps being the receipt of a grievance complaint.
One recent weekday afternoon one of my partners transferred a call to me from "Jane Doe." After confirming that I indeed was the MCB President, Ms. Doe launched into a tirade about how annoyed she was with her lawyer's services. She recounted her efforts to lodge an official grievance through established local and state bar channels. She conveyed her frustrations with what she deemed unwarranted requests for evidence to support her claim of lawyer misconduct and unreasonable delays in "somebody" reprimanding this lawyer. So Ms. Doe demanded that I, as the MCB President, immediately contact and reprimand the MCB member on the spot not only for neglecting her matter but also failing to achieve favorable results. And Ms. Doe insisted that I track down the offending lawyer by Friday of that week, because he was about to leave for vacation and he needed "a talking to" before he departed. After getting Ms. Doe to calm down, I explained to her that lawyer discipline of any sort is the exclusive prerogative of the North Carolina State Bar, not the president of any local judicial bar, but that the State Bar had delegated to the MCB Grievance Committee the authority to act as its agent for the purpose of receiving a client grievance against a member of the MCB, investigating the alleged misconduct, and making a recommendation to the State Bar on whether the lawyer had violated the Rules of Professional Conduct. I directed Ms. Doe to the MCB office for a contact person, described the written form (posted on MeckBar.org) she could complete to file a grievance and discussed how the investigatory process might unfold. Ms. Doe thanked me for my time and attention, but stressed that she intended to file that grievance.
I have no idea if Ms. Doe followed through and lodged a formal grievance after our call. And if inquiring minds want to know, no, I learned neither the identity of the alleged offender nor the details of the alleged offense. But I do know that the MCB receives between 500-750 inquiries annually which involve grievances or fee disputes against attorneys. I also know that in 2009-10, the MCB opened 41 new grievance files. Of those 41 files, 25 were filed locally and the rest were filed directly with the State Bar then sent to the MCB for investigation.
Ms. Doe's grievances, in many respects, stemmed from being really annoyed. Clients are the lifeblood of our practices, and they rightly become annoyed with a lack of quality service. And perception is often reality for many clients. Lawyers can facilitate the delivery of quality client services by minimizing, or preferably eliminating, those occurrences that annoy clients most. In this regard, I recently came across an ABA Book Briefs Blog circulating the book excerpt entitled "Eleven Things That Annoy Clients Most," which was taken from the book "The Busy Lawyer's Guide to Success: Essential Tips to Power Your Practice." Authors Reid F. Trautz and Dan Pinnington identified not only major client annoyances but also offered practical solutions for avoiding them. I believe their observations provide some useful grievance-avoidance techniques and, thus, share them here:
1. Not returning phone calls. Solution: set a policy of returning calls the same day, within 24 hours, etc. and stick to it;
2. Not replying to e-mails. Solution: current technology leads many clients to expect virtually immediate responses, so adopt a policy and stick to it;
3. Making clients wait in reception. Solution: minimize it, and just think of how you feel if you must wait to see your doctor or dentist;
4. Ignoring client/staff incivility. Solution: implement professionalism and civility requirements for staff and clients as necessary;
5. Dropping names to impress others. Solution: tout successes and impressive connections only when it advances the clients matters;
6. Not clarifying for the client. Solution: offer explanations and instructions that are appropriate for the clients level of sophistication;
7. Not delivering on promises of performance. Solution: strive to underpromise and overdeliver;
8. Not delivering on a promised outcome. Solution: exercise restraint in predicting an outcome and document your advice;
9. Not communicating during long periods of inactivity. Solution: explain delays associated with legal matters and communicate regularly even if only to report no recent activity;
10. Failing to be prepared. Solution: like the Boy Scouts, always be prepared; and
11. Sending a very large bill without warning or explanation. Solution: call first to explain the particulars or adopt a strict retainer policy.
The authors' final point is that if you inadvertently engage in one of these annoyances, you should make sure the client receives a prompt acknowledgement, an appropriate apology and an assurance that it was a one-time occurrence.
There is no legitimate excuse for failure to provide quality client service. At best, you lose the client. At worse, you lost the client and defend a grievance. Neither outcome is desirable, and either can adversely affect your livelihood, reputation and ability to continue practicing law. As the only profession granted the privilege of representing clients in the legal arena, lets strive to adopt and implement reasonable steps to avoid annoying our clients and to avert grievance petitions from Jane and John Does. Please contact the MCB if we can help.