Trials and Tribulations: Client Communication

by Cassandra Netzke on August 22, 2012

I recently sent a demand letter to out-of-state counsel.  I am local counsel, working on the same matter, for the same client.  Why would I need to send a demand letter to my co-counsel, you ask?  That’s a very good question.

It’s my policy to update my clients regarding the status of their case, regardless of the progress, at least every 30 days.  Usually I update them more frequently.  I always update them as soon as anything new happens in their case.

Because most of the action in this case is takes place out-of-state, I rely on my co-counsel to provide updates to me.  This system sufficed for months until six weeks went by without a peep from co-counsel.  Not that I hadn’t tried to reach him.  I sent emails about once a week.  The client called and left messages.  I called and was sent to voicemail after the receptionist screened my call.  “I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?  Ah huh.  And what was this about? … Oh, he’s unavailable.  Would you like his voicemail?”

I can handle being sent to voicemail.  What I couldn’t handle was waiting another three days and not receiving a call back.  Thus, the demand letter.

My “nice note” thrilled the client, especially when it elicited a response from counsel within a few hours.  It was somewhat satisfying to sound off a little bit, too.  Sadly, though, it didn’t have to come to this.  We could have avoided the vain attempts to communicate, the client’s frustration, and the time wasted drafting a demand letter.  All co-counsel had to do was shoot me an email or return a call.

This incident has me thinking.  What kind of message do we send to each other and to our communities when we fail to communicate responsibly and professionally? As a fellow professional, I expect at least a modicum of courtesy. Our clients deserve more.

One might be tempted to assume things about my co-counsel: maybe he is in over his head, a swamped junior associate, maybe this case doesn’t rank high on his priority list.  Of course, even if any of that were true (which it’s not), none of it matters.  We have a duty to communicate with our clients regardless of our experience, inexperience, or the dollar amount at stake.

We’ve all been reminded at ethics CLEs that failure to communicate is a top complaint about attorneys.  It makes sense when you realize that communicating with our clients effectively and efficiently isn’t only the professional thing to do, it’s the right thing to do.  So often we meet people at their worst.  They have just lost a loved one, their marriage is ending, there has been some horrible accident or fight.  Their worlds have become uncertain and unstable. When we don’t tell them what’s going on we leave it to their imaginations.  This is an unnecessary test of their patience and fortitude.  How many worst-case scenarios can you drum up when waiting for the mechanic to call back?  How about when you’re waiting for your medical test results?

We might not be able to fix everything but we don’t have to make things worse.  We can help clients breathe easier by simply saying “No new updates this week.  I’ll check back with you in two weeks.”  See, that’s not so hard.   There’s no need to get a demand letter involved.


Barb Cashman August 23, 2012 at 10:32 am

Great post Casie, I just commented on Facebook about it. . . Seems I have divided loyalties now! Keep up the concise, common sense, reality check posts – you are a valued addition to SOLOinCOLO.

Chad August 27, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Totally agree. Great post. Thanks!

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