It’s one of the least enjoyable experiences in every lawyer’s career: a client has communicated dissatisfaction with the legal services being provided. Whether the complaint relates to work product quality, responsiveness or cost efficiency, the message is the same: “I expected more from you as my lawyer, and I’m disappointed.”
Even lawyers otherwise quite comfortable with confrontation don’t look forward to a conversation with an unhappy client. And with good reason: no lawyer likes to think that he or she delivers anything other than a superior (or even excellent) legal service. A client voicing disappointment represents every lawyer’s worst fears come true.
For these reasons, lawyers often approach client dissatisfaction with a combination of denial and defensiveness, often making matters worse – much worse. The client who was initially expressing dissatisfaction with only an aspect of legal services now faces a second, larger problem: how can the client maintain an ongoing professional relationship with a lawyer whose reaction to criticism makes it difficult to work through identified problems?
There should be no surprise here. After all, who wants to have repeat dealings with a party whose immediate response to any constructive criticism is a combination of denial and defensiveness? From the lawyer’s perspective, does it really matter if the client is factually or legally wrong if proving the client’s error costs you a future relationship with that client? And so, a single, often easily-correctible issue turns into a larger relationship problem.
As odd as it sounds, lawyers would do well to take a different view of client criticism: think of it as an opportunity to build a better client relationship. Here’s how: first, keep in mind that when a client expresses unhappiness with legal services, the client is not making a distinction between “legal services” and “professional services.” Put another way, a client can be unhappy with a lawyer’s services but that doesn’t mean a legal malpractice claim is in the offing. The client may simply be complaining about how otherwise-competent legal services are being delivered. Delays in returning phone calls or in responding to emails can carry an unintended, but sincerely perceived message that the client just isn’t that important to the lawyer. Or an administrative snafu with no legal implications may nevertheless shake a client’s confidence that the lawyer’s office resources and staff are on top of every detail of the legal representation.
Given these completely understandable client reactions, it often is helpful to open a conversation about a client complaint with something along the lines of the following:
“I understand that you are unhappy about how we handled this matter for you. I apologize that we didn’t meet your expectations, and I want to assure you that my goal is to address your concerns – both now and for the future – so we can restore your full confidence in our relationship. You are a valued client, and I want you to know I am committed to meeting and exceeding your expectations.”
Regardless whether the client is right or wrong in his or her criticism, a response along the lines of the statement above will almost always take all the heat and fire out of the client’s complaint. A professional who takes a client and his or her expectations seriously is a rare – and valuable – relationship, and rational clients don’t want to destroy valuable professional relationships.
Next, don’t assume you completely understand the nature and source of the client’s dissatisfaction. (This is not the time to launch into a spirited defense of your work and professional reputation!) Take the opportunity to listen carefully and thoughtfully to the client’s reasons for being unhappy, and ask questions that help you fully understand the client’s concerns – from the client’s point of view. If there’s new information that you’re hearing for the first time, let the client know this is new information, and that you want to make sure to investigate and understand it fully so you can ensure it doesn’t happen again.
At the end of the conversation, ask the client if he or she would like to have a further discussion about the factual background for the complaint after you have done the necessary follow-up. You’d be surprised that in most cases, the client will be satisfied with the apology, and that will be the end of it. More importantly, though, the client now knows that in the event of a future hiccup in your professional relationship, the client can be confident that his or her concerns will be addressed promptly and considerately. That knowledge makes it easier for the client to choose to work with you on additional matters.
Now, that’s a win-win.
John McCarrick has been practicing law for more than 25 years and represents professional liability insurers, domestic and international, in connection with insurance coverage and liability issues arising from complex antitrust, customer, shareholder and bankruptcy-related litigation. John is frequently asked to speak, and regularly writes, on issues related to directors and officers liability and insurance law. He is a partner at White and Williams LLP.