When good clients and colleagues go bad; don’t take the bait

J. Nick Augustine J.D., “The Law Publicist,” is the principal of Law Publicist Communications, an ALR/PRA, Incorporated agency. Nick advises and assists attorneys in transition in public relations, marketing and practice management. Nick shares recruiting and staffing experience and tips for legal job seekers.

The clients for whom you do the best work, give the best deals, and become your “friends” are the quickest to attack when things go poorly. Many young attorneys make the mistake of becoming too close and vulnerable to an attack. Ask any seasoned attorney and they will likely tell the same story. It is important to chose your battles carefully and remember, “ … this too shall pass.” Attorneys in transition must put their professional reputations first, and not get baited by losing battles.

Always bill the client. The first thing they do is forget the good things you did for them. When a client wants to avoid paying your bill, they will invariably claim you didn’t perform the services required, or failed to accomplish a goal. Earlier this year, I had to terminate a belligerent client, and the first e-mail was the claim I didn’t accomplish objectives – this was a month after I facilitated said client’s position on the front page of the Chicago Tribune’s Sunday edition. Remember; attorneys do not control the courts, and publicists don’t control editors, so let’s set and identify our “objectives” and “deliverables” wisely. When you send the client periodic invoices which are received and paid, the unhappy client has less room to later raise objections.

Don’t sue the client. Letting go of earned but unpaid fees is a better bet than pursuing collection from a client who is likely to reply with an attack on all fronts. There is no quicker way to buy yourself an ARDC complaint than suing for past fees. Some practitioners elect to take this risk and have their procedure for same down to a science. I will bet these same attorneys conduct a cost/benefit analysis since they do run the risk of altercation, and must report suits against clients and ARDC complaints to their professional liability carrier. Is it worth the additional premiums and headache?

When in transition people may seek references and talk to known existing and former clients. People are always watching, listening and taking notes. Our communities are smaller than we realize and those with whom we interact are very aware of how we react to conflict. Remember the phrase, “Don’t let them get your goat?”; well if you don’t tell them where your goat is tied up, they can’t get to it! Remember that most people make decisions and actions based on emotion and later justify them with logic. People forget negative events quickly and you should as well. If you air on the side of being a level-headed and calm professional, you are more likely to receive positive recommendations from others. If you have the reputation of being a hot-head you will likely earn the matching reference.

What if someone has bad news? Look on the bright side, and if that doesn’t work, distance yourself from the drama. Don’t fall into the gossip trap and remember how small your world really is. A story often has two competing accounts of the facts, and not getting caught in the middle will serve you well when in transition and generally. People seem to really love bad news and enjoy talking about it. The same people often look for others to validate and chime in on rumors. We all know where this goes and I’ll submit that most people don’t change, they just gossip with greater discretion. Don’t.

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One response to “When good clients and colleagues go bad; don’t take the bait

  1. This posts is full of great information so I don’t even know where to start. One thing you should remember is that you can also pick your Clients. You don’t have to work for everyone. If you don’t see eye to eye with a Client you can always withdraw, but make sure you are not withdrawing simply because you have gotten in over your head and want to get out because you don’t feel competent continuing. Do not leave your Client hanging. If you have collected a fee and now realize you are in over your head talk to the Client about it and the fact that they should look elsewhere and if this is the case perhaps a refund of the fee might be in order. It is much better to come to an agreement with a client over this than to have the Client pursue and ARDC Complaint as well as a Malpractice Action. Sometimes the few dollars you may have to give up is not worth having to report to your insurance carrier that you have had a Complaint filed and also having other Clients and potential clients learn that you are subject to an Ethics Investigation.

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