I have worked for the Contra Costa County Bar Association for over 24 years. During that time, in my position as Fee Arbitration Coordinator and Lawyer Referral Service & Information Representative (LRIS), I have listened to many client complaints. Here are some insights that I hope you will find helpful.
The Initial Interaction
- When you answer the phone, identify yourself. Don’t frustrate the caller. Present yourself in a professional manner right from the start.
- Speak clearly and slowly (even on your voice mail message). Word intelligibility is lost over the phone due to many factors . To compensate, you need to enunciate.
Your Fee Agreement
- Train yourself and your staff to state upfront what your fee is for the first consultation and what that consultation entails .
- At the beginning of the initial consultation, whether a free consultation or not, discuss the time limitations with the client. Does a ½ hour consultation mean that you will start billing them at the 31st minute? Fee arbitrations have been filed by clients because they received a bill for a “free” consultation.
- Before proceeding with any work, make sure the client understands that you are charging them from that point on.
- Remind them kindly that your relationship with them is a business arrangement. That they can help you to help them by acting accordingly. While you empathize with their plight, they have hired you and are paying you, the expert, to know the law and the procedures available through the legal system.
- Review your written fee agreement.
- Is it understandable to a lay person?
- Does it cover all your bases if a fee dispute arises? Check The State Bar of California’s website for the latest samples of fee agreements. They include a summary of the statutes that apply to fee agreements, along with advisory comments.
Client Relations – Uncertainty Reduction is Key
- Inform  your client about the process and the procedures that must be followed in handling their case. Keep them up-to-date on the progress of their case.
- Give the client a handout . Suggestion: Prepare a flowchart that is a sample of the normal steps involved in their type of case, so they can track the progress of the case at home.
- When you notify them that there is a court date coming up, let them know why and what will be happening. Don’t wait until the last minute on the courthouse steps. That can be a daunting experience. Instead of being prepared, they will be confused and upset.
- Review your billing procedures to make sure you are in compliance with B&P Code § 6148(b).
- Make it easy for the client to read your bill. Clients need to understand why a billable item has been performed.
- Have a clear, workable procedure in place as to when and how a client should timely contact you or your office to dispute an item on their bill that they don’t understand or is perhaps a mistake in your bookkeeping. Respond to their concerns in a prompt, professional manner.
- Another thing clients don’t understand is why you charge them when they contact you with a dispute about the fees. Their reasoning is that it isn’t part of their case, so shouldn’t it be part of your doing business?
- Something to be aware of if you find yourself in in a fee arbitration, B&P Code 6203(a) states, in part, “The award shall not include any award to either party for costs or attorney’s fees incurred in preparation for or in the course of the fee arbitration proceeding, notwithstanding any contract between the parties providing for such an award or costs or attorney’s fees…”
- An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The State Bar of California website has a wealth of knowledge concerning professional, ethical, and fee agreement issues. You may find it beneficial to review the following information in relation to your practices.
Other Client Pet Peeves
- Clients get really upset when you discuss your personal and business life with them during a consultation and then charge them for the time.
- Clients don’t understand why you charge them each time you review their file as they think you should you be familiar with their case already.
- Clients think attorneys churn fees because all they see are mounting bills. This is an especially strong contention if they think “nothing is happening”. Let them know if the other side is being overly contentious, or if this is just part of a long legal process. Take time to explain to your client what is happening and what your responsibility is in order to protect your client and how that will affect your fees.
- Clients expect the attorney they hired to represent them to handle their case.
- It is especially disconcerting to a client when an associate takes over their case and the hourly rate is not adjusted accordingly; and they are billed for the associate reviewing the file in order to get up to speed on the case. They want to know why. After all, isn’t that what they already paid you to do?
- And if you really want to be considered unprofessional, instead of the attorney that the client hired appearing at a court date, send an unprepared associate to court and then bill them for this “appearance”.
It is important to communicate professionally and effectively with your client right from your first contact. Most clients (who, after all, are people first) will appreciate the efforts you extend to help them understand the process they are going through.
For information on the CCCBA Fee Mediation/Arbitration Program visit our website www.cccba.org. If you are interested in the information we provide to clients regarding fee disputes, or if you are representing a client in a fee dispute against another attorney, check out Are You Having a Fee Dispute with Your Attorney?
Also, we have prepared an article especially for the consumer: Fee Arbitration Advice for Clients of California Attorneys that addresses the following issues:
Part I: Why is my attorney’s bill so high?
Part II: Help, I’m having a fee dispute with my attorney!
Part III: How do I prepare for a fee arbitration hearing?
 This White Paper, POLYCOM – The “BRAIN” Model of Intelligibility in Business Telephony by Jeff Rodman offers an interesting technical description of this subject.
It is good to give a preamble to a prospective client to clear up any of their misconceptions. For instance, many LRIS clients assume that they are going to get all their questions answered during their consultation, or they think that the attorney will help them fill out forms. Therefore, we have set-up a recorded message explaining that the LRIS Staff will do their best to schedule a ½ hour meeting with an attorney that specifically says, “If it is determined during the ½ hour consultation that you may need to hire them, they will discuss their fees with you.” The staff reiterates this as necessary with the callers by saying that, “The attorneys are in private practice and charge their regular fees. They don’t do any work for you during the consultation.”
 ETHICS HOTLINER – Connecting with Clients: Fee Agreements & Engagement Letters by Timothy Toller
 No need to reinvent the wheel. The following websites offer easy-to-understand educational materials and forms that you can download and print. State Bar of California Pamphlets: http://www.calbar.ca.gov/Public/Pamphlets.aspx; Legal Information http://www.calbar.ca.gov/Public/LegalInformation.aspx; California Courts – The Judicial Branch of California SELF-HELP CENTER http://www.courts.ca.gov/selfhelp.htm
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