“It must happen by Christmas”. How many clients tell their solicitors this? Such clients might want to conclude a corporate transaction, complete a property purchase or finish their divorce settlement. They may not have mentioned this when they instructed us, but did you ask them?
Ten years ago, my then-team was ‘mystery-shopped’ by a professional agency, appointed by our marketing team. We were tested against a number of other regional competitors in the field of family law. We happened to have come out top of the survey.
One of the reasons why was because all potential clients got to talk to a solicitor rather than a receptionist or secretary before any meeting was arranged. That meant that a qualified solicitor could manage the expectations of anyone looking to instruct us from the outset.
Our duty of care applies to free advice too: Burgess & Anor v Lejonvarn
Some might balk at the fact that a would-be client might get free advice but not then follow up with the instruction, not forgetting that our duty of care applies whether we are charging or not.
Of course, we are all mindful of Burgess & Anor v Lejonvarn  EWHC 40 (TCC). This case held that the defendant owed a duty of care to the claimants to exercise reasonable skill and care in the provision by her of professional services she was gratuitously providing. The unfortunate Mrs Lejonvarn acted as an architect and project manager for redevelopment of their garden.
The Burgess & Anor v Lejonvarn Law Society Gazette article provided some debate in the published comments. Should the case stop solicitors speaking to potential clients before we meet them and prior to getting a client care letter signed? Of course not. Obviously though, specific advice should be avoided, disclaimers given, and a contemporaneous note made of the conversation.
Dealing with unrealistic client expectations
A prospective client might have in mind a particular timescale, albeit entirely unrealistic. Wanting representation for a trial beginning the following day is one example. Talking to clients at the earliest possible stage, establishing their requirements and then managing their expectations are key risk management elements.
Some individuals want a “quickie” divorce and are surprised to learn that these are mythical beasts, like unicorns and dragons. Others want a prenuptial agreement. Having congratulated them, you must then ask when they plan to marry. “Next week” is one answer I have had.
Of course, there should be a “cooling off” period between the date of a “prenup's” execution and the marriage ceremony of at least three weeks and possibly months, the absence of which might in itself undermine any chance of the document being upheld.
Providing early costs information is very helpful
Managing clients’, and potential clients’, expectations is key to good risk management. As well as timescales, providing early costs information is very helpful.
I shall never forget a meeting I had with a client when I was a very newly qualified solicitor in the north. During our meeting I began to set out my then firm’s terms and conditions. The woman rose, feigning umbrage, falsely claiming that the appointment had been a free advice session.
Ever since, where a first meeting is to be chargeable, I have made a point of sending in advance to the client an email meeting confirmation with our charge out rates, our terms and conditions attached, and asking for an acknowledgement. Requesting a “read receipt” for the email can help, too.
What do I want for Christmas?
So much for what our clients might want for Christmas. What do I want? We know from statistics published by the Health and Safety Executive on work-related stress, depression or anxiety that solicitors and other ‘legal professionals’ are third in a list of the top four most stressful jobs in the UK.
With that in mind, as a family lawyer, all I want is a peaceful and a happy season before the oft-reported New Year divorce rush gets under way. In the meantime, I wish you a very happy Christmas.
Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society