While most lawyers strive to provide the best possible service to their clients, sooner or later it will be necessary to deal with an unhappy client. What can you do to address client complaints and to mend the attorney-client relationship?
When you receive a complaint from a current client, you need to remain calm and collected. You should avoid being defensive, even if you believe that the complaint is without merit. Listen to the client, and ask yourself a few questions about the situation, such as:
Did my office make a mistake?
Why does the client believe that my office did something wrong?
Is this a concern or complaint that other clients might make?
What can I do to resolve the complaint in a way that is acceptable to the client?
If you or your office made a mistake, a quick solution may be to apologize and promise to do better in the future. For example, many client complaints arise from a lack of communication, whether because the law firm has not been in contact during a slow period in a case, or because the law firm is not responding to messages, emails or telephone calls. Sometimes a complaint will reflect that your office staff needs some additional guidance or training in working with clients and managing files. If that occurs, you can make sure that training is provided.
If your office has not made a mistake, looking at the complaint from the perspective of the client, is the client's perception reasonable? For example, while lawyers are used to the slow progress of many cases, clients often expect a fast resolution of their cases. Does your client need to be gently educated in order to have a more realistic understanding of how the legal system works, or the complexities involved in their case? Help the client understand why a perceived problem exists and what you can and cannot reasonably do to address the source of their displeasure.
Sometimes a client's complaint is not reasonable. You may be able to guide a difficult client into adopting more reasonable expectations. When that is not possible it may become necessary to evaluate whether you want to continue to represent the client, or to help the client end their relationship with your office and find representation elsewhere. In ending any client relationship, you of course must take care to comply with your state's rules of professional conduct.
Even when the feedback is negative, thank your client for providing the feedback. A "thank you" can reassure a complaining client that you heard what they had to say, and that you're sincere in any promises you have made in relation to your future relationship. If the client was right, the "thank you" is well-earned, as they're giving you the opportunity to fix a problem and are helping you improve your practice.
Complaints Made to Your Office
A complaint made to your office by a former client is very similar to a complaint made by a current client, save for your having fewer options to address the complaint going forward. By listening to the complaint and responding in a thoughtful manner, you increase the possibility that you will reach an amicable resolution and, possibly, learn something that will improve your practice or your staff. Let's face it, a lot of complaints by former clients are about money.
It's not easy if you've earned the fee you charged, but sometimes offering a financial concession will turn an angry client into a satisfied client - or at least one who is neutral instead of negative - and prevent any escalation through online complaints or potential grievances. Be cautious about any offer of a refund or discount that may be interpreted as payment to prevent or dismiss a grievance. Even if you have done nothing wrong such a payment could constitute an ethics violation.
Complaints Made On Websites
Own your name, and the name of your firm. By that, I mean you should take steps to ensure that the top results that come up in the popular search engines are for sites or pages that you own or control, such that client complaints are pushed down to the bottom of the search results or off of the first page of results. You can mitigate the impact of online complaints by asking your satisfied customers to also post reviews.
Are you considering legal action? Tread carefully. Odds are the website where the complaint was posted is protected from a defamation case by falling under the safe harbor provisions of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA), or by virtue of the rating they assign to you as a result of consumer feedback being deemed an opinion, not an allegation of fact that could support a defamation claim. The publicity that can result from suing a website or former client can potentially put even more damaging material into search engine results for your name, and if you lose your case you may inspire a popular belief that the allegations against you were true.
If you prevail in a defamation case and obtain a court order requiring that the former client remove defamatory posts from the Internet, some search engines will remove the problematic pages from their search results based upon the presentation of the order for removal of a specific page.
If the client or former client files a complaint with your state's attorney disciplinary board or grievance commission, tread carefully. Some of the measures that you might have taken to prevent the grievance or to resolve the complaint had it been raised informally can get you into more difficulty. Sometimes you can handle a grievance yourself, but even if the grievance seems baseless you need to consider whether you should get help from a specialist.