April 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Planner's Portfolio April 1998 Current Issue
April 1998 Jonathan HowePLANNER'S PORTFOLIO:

The Law & the Planner


How to Be a Good Client

A dozen easy ways to help your lawyer help you

There are good lawyers, and then there are lawyers who are the inspiration for countless jokes. By the same token, there are good clients, and some that are, well, not as good.

Being a "good client" isn't necessarily a matter of personality. A good client is someone who makes it easier for us to do the job we've been hired to do. That is, to get you out of trouble, or (better yet) to keep you out of trouble. Following are 12 simple ways to get on your attorney's good side.

  1. Like your lawyer. You don't have to love him or her, but you should be very comfortable with the person representing you. A lawyer who can help you best is one who understands what you do and how you do it. Even before you contract with a lawyer, you should have a very open conversation about the nature of your business and the areas in which you think you might need legal assistance.
  2. Discuss key contacts. Your lawyer may be hard to reach, and you may be hard to reach, too. Let the attorney know up front the size of your staff, the people who will be able to contact him and how you prefer to communicate (phone, fax, e-mail, mail). Realize, too, that your lawyer is likely to have associates who may be brought in to help out on a particular matter. This is not because he is ignoring you, but because it may be the the most effective and cost-efficient way to address your needs.
  3. Talk about billing. Let your preferences be known. Do you want a flat project fee, an hourly charge, a retainer arrangement? Would you like a day-to-day breakout of expenses? How should out-of-pocket expenses be billed? Once you agree to a billing approach, expect to sign an engagement letter that spells out terms and conditions.
  4. Be open. Even if you're not asked, let the attorney know about any previous legal issues you have faced. If you are looking for a "first time" attorney to work with you, say so. If you are changing from another lawyer, share the reasons. Ask if the attorney is familiar with the nature of your business, and always request a conflict of interest check as well as references and call them.
  5. Tell all. Tell the whole truth. This may seem obvious, but over the years I have found that many times clients conveniently "forget" to share important information that can make a big difference in the outcome of a particular matter. A good lawyer is never judgmental. However, for the attorney to be able to render advice and represent you, she must have all of the facts. No surprises, please.
  6. Keep mum. There's a time to talk and a time to keep very quiet. If you anticipate a problem with another party, let the lawyer know, and do not discuss the matter with anybody. Loose lips sink ships and also make for costly lawsuits. Let your attorney handle the matter and oversee all communications. After all, I tell my clients, "I'm your official worrier. You don't have to worry anymore."
  7. Show your hand. In negotiations, you might not want to tell a supplier up front where you're willing to bend. But let your attorney know if there is room for flexibility and in what areas, so that he can properly address key issues and meet your demands and needs.
  8. Send everything. When preparing a package of material for your attorney regarding a particular matter, omit nothing. Let the lawyer determine what's hot and what's not. Otherwise, she will have to keep coming back and pestering you for additional information.
  9. Don't cry wolf. Your attorney needs ample time to do an adequate job. Only in true emergencies should you ask your lawyer to set aside other matters to address yours immediately. Most of us are confronted daily with clients who claim they're in the midst of a crisis; later we find out it was not quite so urgent. This tactic will backfire.
  10. Set a time line. Ask for a realistic estimate of when a job or task can be completed, and be sure that meets your expectations at the outset. The lawyer may be embroiled in other pressing business, or the matter at hand may simply require more time than you realize.
  11. Expect to work. If you are facing litigation or some other adversarial proceeding, you can't simply hand over the matter to your lawyer and walk away. Be prepared to work together in developing information, documents, and the like. This will be a team effort, and it won't always be easy.
  12. Pay your bill. If you have a question about fees, call the attorney, don't let the bill sit on your desk. One major client of ours pays his bill as soon as he opens it. Now, that's a good client.

Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., is a senior partner in the Chicago and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton, Ltd., which specializes in meetings, travel and hospitality law.

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