Help Me, Help You: Getting Clients to Do Their Homework
In most practices, your ability to successfully represent your client depends on the willingness of your client to help you. You will need information and documentation from your client. They will need to take action and meet deadlines for you to move their matter forward. However, many attorneys express frustration because their clients will drop the ball and then are surprised that the work is delayed or derailed. What can you do to ensure your clients help you help them?
If you start representation by giving your client a long document with all the things they will need to do, not only will they be overwhelmed, but they also probably will not read it all. Whether or not humans have the attention span of goldfish, if your client is stressed, overwhelmed, or busy your long document sent as an email attachment may not be effective in getting them to act.
Try to help them “chunk up” the tasks. Review your documentation and edit with a timeline/project approach like Week 1 – do x, y, z; Week 2 do x, y, z. If you send a multi-page document, the first page should be a summary checklist of the client’s responsibilities, with deadlines. If that is more than one page pick the milestones and reference the page with tasks and subtasks.
If you are working with business clients you might use technology, for instance a project management tool like Asana or Trello or add them as guests to a Teams channel. If it is a consumer client look at the capabilities built into your client portal in your practice management application to see if there are workflows or a shared calendar for you to display tasks and deadlines.
There are low tech/no tech options too. You can assemble a binder or notebook that is color coded and dated like a journal. Or put the documents or checklists in different envelopes that the client opens on different dates or for different tasks. Or send emails that link to online forms that have prompts.
Send reminders with a couple of different follow-up checklists at various times during the process. For instance: “You should have already done a, b, c. Now it’s time to do d, e, f.” State that it is mandatory that they respond to these requests. The crucial point is making it extremely clear the law firm did everything possible. These reminders can be via email and/or text messages.
Another option is to hire someone to act as a case manager (or repurpose an existing position) who follows up with people on these tasks but does not get paid lawyer rates.
Many people are visual learners if the success of Instagram is any indication. In addition to checklists and deadlines, consider displaying timelines and tasks as pictures. There are lots of templates for graphic timelines and infographics in PowerPoint, Canva and more here. Check out Tools to Create Infographics Easily from the Legal Ease Blog.
Carrots and Sticks
Leading with a few gentle “threats” and consequences may be appropriate. For instance, letting a client know if she fails to do something, she will incur more attorney fees. Or that the judge may not release funds from the estate if proper accounting has not been done. Or the judge could order an outsider to investigate, or the client could have personal liability for funds not accounted properly.
Can you build in a reward system? Award points for tasks done before deadline awarded towards a credit on the bill? An Amazon gift card for uploading all required documents in a timely manner? Donation to a local food bank or charity for meeting goals?
Put it in Context
Sometimes a little motivation could be inserted into the client’s invoice. A note on the bill that says “interested in saving some money? You can do x, y and Z” may get clients to take action.
Or you could consider service models with two options. For instance, tell the client “You can go with our full-service model where we will open your matter or case with/for you, have someone come to do x y and z for you, etc. at the reasonable price of $$#. Or you can choose a collaborative approach where you accomplish your tasks and we accomplish ours, at $#. If you are not able to follow through with your tasks, we will recommend you switch to the $$# service.” That may get their attention and gives the lawyer flexibility to discuss roles and costs if responsibilities aren’t met.
It will take additional effort on your part to get your clients onboard with helping ensure that the representation is a success. However, if it helps reduce your stress then it is worth the time commitment to assign client homework.
*** Special thanks to Courtney Troutman at the South Carolina Bar, Roberta Tepper at the State Bar of Arizona, Jim Calloway at the Oklahoma Bar Association and Charity Anastasio at the American Immigration Lawyers Association for their help in brainstorming ideas for this blog post.