Managing challenging clients: small law firms need to set boundaries

Managing challenging clients: small law firms need to set boundaries That famous phrase “The customer is always right” was originally applied over 100 years ago by leading retailers such as the founder of Selfridges. Although law firms have traditionally referred to customers as clients, many have adopted similar approaches to keeping their customers/clients satisfied. The ability of clients to contact their legal teams through the medium of their choice and at a time which is most convenient to the client has become an increasingly significant measure of client satisfaction. This 24/7 online customer service culture has been popularised by e-commerce and spread to other sectors during the pandemic.

But whilst it’s important to keep clients happy, firms need to ensure this doesn’t come at the expense of legal staff - especially if their home lives are being disrupted by feeling compelled to respond to clients at all hours. Drawing the right balance is particularly crucial for small firms, which may lack the resources of larger peers who can hire dedicated client service staff.

How are challenging clients impacting the lives of lawyers in small law firms?

According to the 2022 Bellwether report from LexisNexis, around 40% of sole practitioners and lawyers working in small firms feel that their clients expect them to be available online out of work hours. More worryingly, over 25% of respondents said that client demands often interfere with their personal lives.

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One respondent to the Bellwether report noted: “I think clients expect an instant response and that’s probably because over the last two years more of them have been buying online where they get an instant response or they are getting an online chat or something that happens straight away.”

Elsewhere, a 2022 SRA survey revealed that one in four lawyers felt that their firm did not have a positive culture, partly as a result of pressures from clients.

What can be done to manage client expectations?

Sole practitioners and small firms should discuss service delivery expectations at the start of any client relationship, to ensure that all parties know where they stand, and to minimise blurred lines between the professional and personal lives of lawyers.

One small firm which responded to the aforementioned SRA survey noted: “We protect employees from long working hours by managing client expectations at an early stage. We send a communication guide to all new clients that sets out their normal working hours and stipulates that staff cannot be contacted while on leave.” 

A respondent to the Bellwether report reiterated the advantages of setting clear boundaries: “We talk to people a lot about people managing client’s expectations, explaining to them right at the start what kind of response they’re going to get. I think if you’re clear with clients early on then most of them are quite okay about it.”

Other client challenges

Aside from expecting a 24/7 service, some clients can be challenging in other ways. Whilst the legal sector in the UK generally has a positive culture for women and minority groups, some industries have more ingrained problems with discrimination, and attitudes from certain clients may occasionally cause discomfort for legal staff. Even if it’s not discriminatory, client behaviour which causes anyone to feel uncomfortable should not be tolerated. To combat this, firms can include a code of conduct alongside client expectations, and encourage staff to raise any problems with their line manager or HR.

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About the author:
Rakhee leads marketing for small and solo legal practices. Having been with the business for well over a decade, she brings with her an immense knowledge of all LexisNexis products and is interested in showcasing their unique benefits to independent firms.