The most frequent reason clients dispute legal fees (or worse, file grievances) is that they’re unhappy with how they’ve been treated. The second is their feeling that they’re not receiving sufficient value for what they’re paying you. It’s rarely a technical error alone that triggers their complaint. Rather, it’s how they feel you have responded to a problematic situation. Which means it’s a communication issue, whether you feel you have done something wrong or not.
The New York Times ran an article a few years ago with some eye-popping statistics from the world of medicine, one from which attorneys and law firms would do well to learn. Hospitals in which doctors preemptively disclose and genuinely convey empathy when things go wrong are seeing malpractice claims (along with the associated economic damage from them) plummet.
The article references the Sorry Works Coalition, a leading voice in the emerging research on the impact of what it calls the “disclosure process.”
Though the context is health care, the lessons for attorneys and firms are direct and powerful. Actual legal “mistakes” do happen on rare occasion. Alas, though, communication glitches happen much more frequently. And how you handle them is largely what determines whether they exacerbate or mitigate the subsequent threat to your reputation and revenue.
As is true of medical professionals, lawyers have been trained (if only informally) to not admit mistakes, to not acknowledge fault in the face of complaints from clients. Yet there’s an important distinction between empathy and apology, and it can mean the difference between an improved client relationship and a lost client relationship.
Of course, it’s far wiser to prevent complaints by executing smart client/case selection, setting appropriate up-front expectations with respect to communication and fees, etc. But when a client complaint arises, you have a choice about the fundamental attitude you’ll bring to the interaction.