Five ways to improve the attorney-client relationship

Few people are enthusiastic about engaging the services of a lawyer.

October 29, 2012

By Jody Doyle (Partner, Dommisse Attorneys)

Few people are enthusiastic about engaging the services of a lawyer. As an entrepreneur, you’re almost certainly more interested in growing the business than in meeting with your attorneys – but getting from idea to reality invariably requires the involvement of a lawyer at some point or another, so it makes sense to get the most you can out of your lawyer. In fact, if you manage it properly, the attorney-client relationship can be one of the most useful and rewarding business relationships you have.

“A good relationship always starts with choosing the right person, but once you’ve narrowed the list to a couple of candidates and chosen the best fit, there are five key things you need to remember to ensure the relationship works for you”, says Jody Doyle, Partner, Dommisse Attorneys.

1. Know what you want
You’ll get more value from a consultation if you’ve spent some time beforehand thinking about exactly what you need, and why. “Draw up X legal document” will get you the document and nothing more – if you can explain the background and articulate the problems you’re trying to solve or avoid, you give your attorney more space to come up with a creative, appropriate solution. Giving a good brief is the first step towards a good relationship.

2. Respect expertise
Once you’ve made your choice of attorney, trust their judgement and give them some room to work for you. Professionals who are constantly being second-guessed or micromanaged by their clients – whether they’re doctors, lawyers, accountants, architects or even software engineers – quickly lose the incentive to deliver their best work. If you’re genuinely unhappy with the results you’re getting, give detailed feedback fast – and consider hiring a new lawyer.

From the attorney’s side, this means respecting professional boundaries as well. A good patent attorney may know little about tax or contracts; and certainly a lawyer is not an accountant, business coach, therapist or banker. Your attorney should be frank enough to let you know when your needs require the advice of an expert in a different field.

3. Don’t hold anything back
In the hit TV medical series House, the brilliant but troubled diagnostician at the centre of the story has a favourite saying: “All patients lie.” It’s invariably the one detail the patient was too embarrassed to mention that turns out to be the key to solving their baffling medical problem.

You’re not quite putting your life on the line if you forget to mention something to your lawyer, but non-disclosure is always a dangerous idea. If the sale agreement you’re negotiating includes a clause warranting that you are involved in no legal disputes, don’t assume anything is irrelevant. Rather disclose absolutely everything, even if it’s just an outstanding traffic fine, and let your lawyer decide.

4. Invest in long-term relationships
It takes time for anybody to understand your business thoroughly, and most lawyers will admit that the clients they have known for years get more insightful and targeted advice than newer clients. The most rewarding clients are the ones who view us as long-term partners, not just short-term advisers, and who pick up the phone to bounce an idea off us whenever they need to. When this happens, we know we’ve succeeded in building up high levels of trust.

This cuts both ways, of course: When we meet a client we really like and want to develop a long-term relationship with, as attorneys we should also invest time and effort into learning about their business.

5. Pay your bills
Money disputes can sour business and personal relationships very quickly. The golden rule here is always to be completely honest: Negotiate a fee you can genuinely afford (or find a less expensive lawyer), make sure you understand the terms of engagement, let the attorney know in good time if you’re about to hit a cash flow crisis and, of course, pay the bills when they’re due. Again, this cuts both ways: If your prospective attorney is uncomfortable discussing their fees upfront or the fee arrangement is unclear, then you should consider these matters to be a red flag for the relationship.

As always, the golden rule is “do as you would be done by”. Think about what characterises your own worst clients; now consider your best clients. Then copy the behaviour of the good ones, and you’re unlikely to go wrong.