Managing client relationships is vital to a successful and competent practice. Many complaints received by the Law Society relate to client relationship management issues such as lawyers who don’t return phone calls, clients who don’t know the status of their files and clients who don’t understand the services they are receiving. With some work to manage the relationship up front, these issues tend not to arise.
We define this competency as requiring a lawyer to manage client relationships and interact effectively with clients in person, online and on the telephone. This involves managing client expectations, remaining in communication with clients and balancing the needs of all clients.
This competency is just as important in non-traditional practice environments as it is in traditional practice. Client has a very broad meaning and can include pseudo-clients and an organization.
We encourage all lawyers in non-traditional practice settings, such as crown prosecutors and in-house counsel, to think broadly of how this competency intersects with their practice and the stage of their career. This includes looking at broader categories of relationships that require the same or similar skills as the management of a traditional client relationship. This could mean looking at how work is assigned and where it comes from, to assessing how a file progresses and where there may be ongoing relationship management practices to develop.
For in-house counsel, the client is the organization for which you work. For purposes of developing relationship management, it can include your direct supervisor, those who provide you with work, other departments in the organization and the executive.
Crown prosecutors do not have a traditional client base, as many lawyers would define that term, but they do represent the Crown’s interests in their work. Additionally, prosecutors are assigned or receive files in some manner. This relationship with supervisors or others in the Justice department is a relationship to be managed. There are also many pseudo-client relationships to manage that can be addressed within this competency. This list can include relationships with police, victims and witnesses. Prosecutors must manage the expectations of these groups, have difficult conversations with them, at times, and ensure they understand their role in the justice system.
The client relationship management competency focuses on relationship management, whether with traditionally defined clients or others who are similarly situated. As lawyers practice in many different environments, you are encouraged to use the definition provided in the CPD template, as well as the examples of learning and knowledge and examples of CPD activities, as guidance of what to assess in the self-assessment of your own competence in your particular practice setting. From there, you can develop a plan that will assist you in the unique practice setting in which you work.
There are many ways to learn about or improve upon current client relationship management practices. As many initial client meetings cover a lot of information and go in numerous directions, the creation of a checklist to ensure all important details are covered could be one way of improving relationship management. This could include items such as verifying client identity, a brief identification of the legal issue, fee and retainer explanations and information on next steps. Another way to improve relationship management could be a review of a current retainer letter to ensure it provides the necessary information to clients so that issues don’t arise in the future.
A great way to manage expectations is to identify, early on, how you respond to ongoing client communications and learn how to develop a proactive system. This can include an explanation for clients of the cost of phone calls and emails; if you set aside certain times of the day or week to provide responses; and when clients can get answers from an assistant on certain topics. Courses and seminars on interpersonal communication or having difficult conversations can also be a great help to improving relationship management.
A self-assessment of your current practices, where you may want to learn additional skills or gain insight into how better to deal with people will all be of benefit to you in assessing this competency as you develop your CPD plan.
Written by: Jennifer Freund, Policy Counsel