Meeting the Client for the First Time
CAUTION: This course does not discuss your obligation to engage in conflict of interest checks, or the rules about client identification (Rule 3-100). A good source of information is the Client Identification Practice Checklist of the relevant section of the Small Firm Practice Course. Always ensure that you comply with these rules and note that conflicts are a major cause of complaints to Law Societies. In determining a lawyer’s duties to a client, the court may be guided by the Law Society's conflict of interest rules, but is not bound by them, and may impose a much higher duty owed to the client (MacDonald Estate v. Martin,  3 S.C.R. 1235). Also review the BC Code, 3.4, regarding managing conflicts of interest.
a. First impressions
Clients should feel they have entered the office of a professional, which includes being greeted by a clean, tidy environment and being treated with politeness and respect. If you do not present a professional workplace to clients, they will not believe you are capable of commanding respect elsewhere.
After having been established in your location for a period of years, you might be surprised to find out what first time visitors think of the place. Time has a way of helping to accumulate detritus- old magazines, tatters in your upholstery, faded paint on the walls, an old light fixture not quite up to the task. Try walking into your office with fresh eyes once in a while and see if the gloss has worn off. Updating need not be expensive or time consuming and often costs only the time it takes to slow down and appreciate your environment anew.
You should treat your staff with courtesy and respect and demand that they do the same with everyone who enters or contacts your office.
Be punctual. If you anticipate being late, get a message to the client ahead of time. In circumstances where you are unable to do so, ensure someone in your office can explain to the client that you are delayed and when you will be available. Being late for meetings or court appearances is a sign of disrespect and sloppy practice. Seek assistance for improving your time management skills before lateness becomes a habit.
b. Listen and think before you respond
You will establish a good relationship with your clients if you listen to what they say, think about what they have told you, and then respond. You should resist the temptation to assume you have heard the client’s story before and know the solution. In the same vein, you should resist the temptation of speaking over the client in a rush to demonstrate that you are clever, wise, and know the answer to their problem. Develop the habit of letting the client speak, then narrow the issues with follow-up questions, and don’t hesitate to let the client know (when appropriate) that you want to do additional work to test your initial assumption about their situation. If you don’t listen, you are more likely to make mistakes and offend your client.
c. Match your style with the client's needs
Set the ground rules for communication as soon as you meet your client. Tell your client how you prefer to communicate, but be sensitive to his or her needs. Your client, for example, may not have a computer to access emails, may be functionally illiterate, or may not be fluent in English.
Don’t assume that one size fits all.
Tell your clients that you will try to return their communications in a timely fashion, and let them know when they can expect a reply. Explain that there may be a delay in responding to their call, but that you are committed to resolving their legal problems.
It is a good idea to record the communication plan in the retainer letter. (Retainer letters are discussed later in these materials.) If your client constantly requests updates and information, you need to actively manage his or her expectations. Ignoring the communications is not the solution.
d. Fee estimates
Fee estimates are difficult. Communicating effectively with the client is essential for preventing disagreements later in the process. The BC Code rule 3.6 sets out the various factors which should be considered when setting your fee estimate, including but not limited to: the time and effort expected to be spent on the matter, the level of difficulty of the matter, whether any special skills are required, the expected results, any special circumstances like the urgency of the matter, and the experience and abilities of the lawyer. Every lawyer should have an agreement with their client, in writing, setting out these expectations as full disclosure can provent problems later in the relationship. Every lawyer owes their client a duty of candour in communicating their fees and disbursements, their fees must be fair and reasonable, and fully disclosed in a timely fashion. If problems do develop, your fees can be reviewed under the provisions in Part 8 of the Legal Profession Act, and the registrar can consider your fee estimate in determining whether your fee was fair and reasonable.
Communicating effectively with your client about fees involves more than providing a fee estimate. It requires putting that estimate in context based on the facts, the services the client is seeking, and informing the client if issues arise that may change your initial estimate. It is a good idea to explain the steps that you need to take on the file, and an estimate of the time required for each step. You can explain the settlement process at the same time, and the effect of a settlement on the estimated fee. Your estimate of fees should also include an explanation for how the fees will be calculated, how disbursements will be calculated and charged, and expected timelines for the payment of fees.
For more information on legal fees, see the rule 3.6 of the BC Code, or "Disputes involving fees and the Law Society Fee Mediation Program". Also helpful is the yearly "Lawyers' Remuneration" chapter of the Continuing Legal Education Society of BC's Annual Review of Law & Practice provides a good overview of developments in the area of lawyers’ remuneration; see also Gordon Turriff, Q.C., Annotated British Columbia Legal Profession Act (Canada Law Book: looseleaf).