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‘Above all don’t pester your lawyer’ | Jo-Anne Stark

Thursday, July 07, 2022 @ 9:45 AM | By Jo-Anne Stark

Jo-Anne Stark %>
Jo-Anne Stark
Dear Jo:

I’m hearing so much about a “client-centric approach” and that lawyers need to find better ways to meet the expectations of today’s client; what does that really mean in practice?

Back in the day I was a business student at university, almost every single class focused on meeting the expectations of clients — how to create a product or service that they wanted, at a price they were willing to pay and delivered using a method that is convenient to them.

Then I went to law school. There, clients became file number and solving legal issues became the primary focus; this practice continues today, and often forces students to embark on a career where they expect clients to just show up and pay their hourly rate (and be grateful for their help!).

Don’t believe me? Listen to this excerpt from a book that I read which was designed to help people understand the litigation process:

“It goes without saying, that when your lawyer asks you to do something, you should do it: cheerfully, without grumbling and above all do it promptly and do it properly.” (The Client’s Guide to Litigation by David Roberts, published by Canadian Bar Association, B.C. Branch, 2005)

Well that certainly got my attention; it smacked of the same tone one might read in a 1950s home economics textbook which said things such as:

“Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal on time. This is a way of letting him know that you have been thinking about him and are concerned about his needs.” And

“Be a little more gay and a little more interesting. His boring day needs a lift.” These quotes are the subject of memes online these days, and it’s no wonder.

Women were taught:

“Don’t greet him with problems or complaints. Don’t complain if he is late. … Speak in a low, soft, soothing and pleasant voice. Allow him to relax and unwind.” and “… try to understand his world of strain and pressure, his need to come home and relax.” Is that also how lawyers expect their clients to behave, when dealing with a significant legal issue that might be impacting every area of their life?

I decided to continue reading the client’s guide with great interest; the chapter on “How to Help Your Lawyer” went on to say, “lawyers always do a better job for those of their clients whom they like and respect and who do what their lawyer asks of them”. Furthermore, it “annoys your lawyer” if you “grumble about the process” or “balk at performing tasks”; and above all, the best way to “keep up your lawyer’s morale” is to “pay his bills promptly”. Is it really the job of the client to keep up the lawyer’s morale? Since when?

The chapter then goes into great detail about the way clients ought to produce document lists, prepare copies and even go out to find witnesses for the trial — while simultaneously warning that the client not to “deluge” the lawyer with materials, questions and information. The chapter sums it all up this way: “Ask your lawyer what you can do to help. Finally, don’t pester your lawyer.” Are clients an inconvenience for lawyers? Really?

As I’m reading the client guidebook, I’m thinking to myself: surely this book was written 70 years ago as it has the same paternalistic tone that the home economics textbooks once had. I flip to the front of the book: it was published in 2005! Is it any wonder why clients are disillusioned by their experiences working with lawyers? And why lawyers get a “bad name” in the service industry? If this is the way clients are to interact with their lawyers, I can see why the reputation of lawyers is often in question.

When I talk about running a client-centric practice, the words quoted from the client guidebook are basically reversed: don’t expect your client to ask you what they can do to make things easier for you — rather, you (the lawyer) should ask the client what you can do for them to make things easier for them! Ask your client what you can do to help! Clients do a better job of keeping up with their payments to lawyers if the client likes and respects their lawyer! If a client asks you to do something, you should do it cheerfully, without grumbling — and do it promptly and properly!

For me, legal coaching is a client-centric way to provide legal services — at a price point that is reasonable. With this type of limited legal service, the coach really listens to the client — who drives the process and does the legal work. I make sure I show up to every coaching session with a cheerful positive attitude, prepared to hear my client even if they need to “grumble,” and I offer new perspectives to give them the confidence that they need to manage their legal journey; as a result, client satisfaction rates are high and bills are always paid on time. I respect my clients, I appreciate their business and I work hard to empower them. This is how you meet the expectations of today’s clients!

Jo-Anne Stark, B.Comm., J.D., CLC, is the founding president of the non-profit Legal Coaches Association and author of Mastering the Art of Legal Coaching. Find her on LinkedIn.

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