Young Lawyers Summit: honing professionalism and practice management

Young lawyers advised not to cut rates and to take charge at panel discussion on good strategies

Young Lawyers Summit: honing professionalism and practice management

Three seasoned lawyers gave their tips to young practitioners on how to effectively manage clients and professional responsibilities, which lead to good habits and repeat business, in a panel discussion on “Honing professionalism and practice management.”

Thursday’s Young Lawyers Summit panel, presented by Key Media International, heard from Ouassim Tadlaoui, a partner at Lavery Lawyers in Montreal; Leena Youseif, principal of YLAW in Vancouver; and Jody Berkes, principal of Berkes Criminal Law in Toronto.

Effective client communications

Ensuring effective client communications involves “setting out parameters for communication early on in the process: what form they're going to take, how often they're going to be, what kind of information is going to be conveyed,” Berkes said. “And make sure that you keep to those expectations,” so that client and lawyer both stay on track and misunderstandings are avoided.

He said he also tries to “keep all communications to one platform” and to get back to all clients the same day that they email or otherwise communicate with me, if only to acknowledge and give a day and time for responding to their question.

Any oral communication with a client that sets out an agenda or expectations should also be followed up in writing, which helps avoid confusion later on, or even a complaint to the Law Society.

It’s important for the lawyer to take charge of the client relationship, said Youseif. The lawyer is the “captain,” she said, and clients are paying their lawyers to be such. This can mean tempering any  unreasonable client expectations. “As a lawyer, you have to take the lead, and they’ll respect you more if you do.”

Expectations around access should also be confirmed at the start of a relationship, said Tadlaoui, so that clients don’t expect to have constant access to their lawyers across various platforms at all hours. “But always confirm in an email at the end of the day, just to sum [communications and instructions] up,” and so that it’s in writing and there is accountability as well.

Billing

Don’t cut rates because you’re young, or let clients weasel out of not paying, advised Berkes. And, “if it's not working out, don't be afraid to walk away. There will be other clients, I promise you.”

When matters arise that may require extra expense for the client, Youseif said she describes advantages and disadvantages to a client, then asks them how they want to resolve it, explaining how much more it will cost.

“We’re in profession of creating and achieving quality, and if somebody wants quality they're going to pay for it,” she said. “If you cut your rate, it implies you’re not as deserving as the next lawyer who’s going to charge more,” adding that she would not cut her rates.

Tadlaoui advised lawyers to bill regularly in order to avoid sending bills that are very voluminous.

Strategies for managing clients and their files

Clients are looking to their lawyers to reassure them, so any bad news should be broken in a way that doesn’t demoralize the client, said Berkes.

“Honesty is the best policy,” Tadlaoui said, and enables issues to be handled in the most efficient way possible as well. And, don’t promise anything you can’t deliver.

Youseif said she tries to explain things as simply as possible to her clients, almost as if they are children. That also means keeping to a minimum information that is sent by email unless she has called or spoken to a client first.

Navigating relationships with senior partners

“The best way to deal with a partner on a file is to know everything you can about the file, and you can't rely on the partner to tell you because they're busy and distracted, and they don't always communicate very well,” Berkes said.

So, the more a younger lawyer can learn about the file without asking the partner any questions, the better off they’ll be when that partner does engage with them and wants work done on the file. That said, a partner doesn’t want to see five hours of billed work on a file when the younger lawyer hasn’t been asked to do anything; so, some hours may have to be “eaten” by the younger lawyer.

He also recommended find a mentor, and said partner are receptive to teaching junior lawyers, but don’t waste their time. “Make sure that you've done your homework, [and then] approach people who you think are good at their practice and have them help you.”

Tadlaoui recommended younger lawyers “be in their faces, be present, be engaging.” Don’t come on too strong, but “differentiate yourself from others that are maybe a bit more shy or less engaging, or less interested.”

Youseif also likes to see the young lawyers in her firm take initiative for reaching out to her; where more personal contact is made, “personalities come up, how you love to communicate,” in a way that doesn’t when people are sitting and working in their own offices. If one of her lawyers is preparing for a trial on which they’ll be second chair, for example, she likes it when they offer to set up weekly or biweekly meetings through her assistant to discuss the file, then do the research and ask questions at the meetings. She also recommends starting off with lunch dates that continue every two to three months to get to know each other.

Close relationships with clients

Berkes said he was told when he started his criminal defence practice that most of the time a client will end up in jail, “but you don’t want to end up there, too.” Reputations can be destroyed in a second, and “if a client, even a close friend, asks you to do something that you know is over the line, or even maybe close to the line, you're best off saying ‘no, thank you, I can't do that,’ and come up with an excuse when you can.”

Youseif said she had developed lifelong friendships with clients, but almost always after the business relationship ends. “Is it wrong to be friends with clients? No, but the timing is key, and also your judgment is key.” For female lawyers in particular, lines can be crossed by clients who want to take them out socially, she said, adding that she tries to set clear boundaries.

For young lawyers, many of their first clients may be family, friends or former schoolmates, said Tadlaoui. The young lawyer needs to be clear that they are talking to these clients as their lawyer, “outside of the scope of friendship or family ties.” And if they can’t work with their client on that level of understanding, the professional relationship must end. “That is really, really important.”

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