My husband and I recently hired a local trusts and estates lawyer to update our estate documents. The last time we had our wills done, our third child hadn’t been born yet and the two we had were an infant and a toddler. Given that the older two are teenagers and the youngest has special needs, my husband (also a lawyer) and I decided that it made sense to do an update. We did research, asked friends for referrals, checked websites, met a couple of likely candidates, and chose an experienced, pleasant lawyer who is not only a trusts and estates specialist, but is certified as such in our jurisdiction. The icing on the cake is that he specializes in working with families with special needs children.
After meeting with the lawyer (let’s call him Vance), we went home, filled out a multi-page questionnaire detailing our assets as well as our wishes regarding executors, trustees, and guardians and, together with a retainer check and signed retainer agreement detailing precisely what types of documents would be drafted, dropped all of it off at Vance’s office exactly one week later. I was told that we would receive draft documents in six to eight weeks and was pretty impressed when, a few days later, we received a letter in the mail thanking us for becoming clients and letting us know exactly who would be working on our matter and who to call if we had a problem.
Ten weeks later, after hearing nothing from the firm, I called to inquire as to when I could expect draft documents. After numerous phone calls over a 10 day period with a very flustered assistant who studiously avoided my questions, I was promised that I would have my documents by email at the end of week 12. When the email came, it contained one sheet of paper detailing what our options would be if we chose to move forward and letting us know that we should notify them if we wanted documents drafted. Huh? I was baffled by the suggestion that we hadn’t already made those decisions. Where were our wills, advanced directives, powers of attorney and special needs trust?
Another flurry of calls ensued during which I was admonished by the assistant that I hadn’t given them the information they needed to draft documents. At my insistence and several days later, Vance himself got on the phone. He insisted that the reason he hadn’t drafted documents was that we were stonewalling. “When I spoke to your husband on the phone, he was very reluctant to give me details about your family business. It’s very hard for me to draft documents if you won’t be honest with me about your assets and liabilities. Your family business is closely tied to your personal documents.” I actually hesitated for a few seconds. Had my husband spoken to Vance on the phone? (No) Was he talking about my business (which is not a family business)? (Um, again, no)
We ended the phone call with Vance promising to look at the file again and get back to me with a deadline. When he called back, he offered an explanation for why we didn’t have documents yet. “I have an associate working on your file. We are currently doing estate planning for two families with special needs children,” he said. “We got the two families confused, so we didn’t do anything on your documents because we were waiting for you to give us the information we needed, but it was really the other family we were waiting for. ” What??? Our lawyer, the special needs expert, had confused us with another family because we both have special needs children?
This true story illustrates a list of “Client Don’ts” that are worth remembering:
- Don’t treat your client like a commodity. Every client feels that her matter is important and at least somewhat unique.
- Don’t confuse one client with another. It makes you appear incompetent and untrustworthy. Even worse, you could accidentally share confidential information with the wrong party.
- Don’t train your staff to stonewall and obfuscate; to the contrary, your staff should be doing everything reasonably possible to keep your clients happy. Have you ever called your doctor’s office with a problem and felt that her staff was intentionally making it difficult for you to access the help you needed? If there is a problem, those on your team should either be trained to handle it properly or come to you immediately for assistance.
- Don’t come to a client call or interaction unprepared, especially if you are told that the client is unhappy. If Vance had briefly reviewed the file and checked with his associate prior to our call, he would have been aware of the mistake and could have come to the call with an apology and a plan to rectify the error.
- Don’t overpromise and under-deliver (do the opposite instead). If you promise documents in 6-8 weeks, don’t miss the deadline. If you do need more time, don’t assume your client will wait patiently. Your client should not have to chase you down to obtain promised documents or information. Call with an explanation, an apology, and a revised due date, and keep your word this time.
In the end, Vance did the right thing. He expressed embarrassment and remorse, promised to get us documents within a week, and delivered on that promise by delivering expertly drafted documents. Nevertheless, our experience with him remains tainted by poor client communication. And that’s not good for business.
To your success,
Elise Holtzman, JD, ACC
The Lawyer’s Success Coach