Everyone has been mistreated — by bureaucratic institutions, unhelpful sales people, or phone systems that make you press ten buttons only to be left on hold for half an hour.

Given how awful the “usual” service is, it’s really not that hard to impress people with the quality of service that you provide. But, remarkably, lawyers (and others) screw this up all the time.

Suppose (to recount an incident I heard about recently) you’re asked to handle a trivial legal issue at a time when you’re swamped with other stuff. You are able to help; you are simply unable to help today. Consider two ways of handling this: First, silently ignore the issue for several days until you have time, and then deal with it. Second, tell the client that you’re currently swamped, but that you’ve received the request and your best guess is that you’ll handle the matter, say, early next week. If you’ve misunderstood, and this is an emergency, the client should let you know, so you can move this task up in the queue.

This should be an easy choice, shouldn’t it?

If you silently ignore the request and then deal with it later, the client feels ignored and is likely to complain that you’re not being responsive.

But you can be a star with just ten seconds of effort: Show the client (or boss, or whomever) that you received the message, you’re a sentient human being, and you will address the issue as soon as possible. And then invite the client to ask you to accelerate the matter (which typically won’t happen, so long as the client is confident that the matter will be handled in a reasonable time). So long as the client knows that you’re awake and responsive, the client will be happy.

I’m not sure whether that’s called “managing expectations” or “living in a service profession,” but it’s what a lawyer who’s trying to build (or maintain) a reputation will do.

The same is true for many other things that cross your desk.

For example, suppose a big case is proceeding, or a big deal is being negotiated, or a big issue is being investigated. Many folks are likely to be keenly interested in the status of the matter.

Average lawyers figure that they’ll wait for the client to ask before they give updates. That’s very often the wrong way to go about things.

The client may be silently cursing you because you haven’t updated him on the matter. When you get an e-mail that either complains — “I haven’t heard from you about matter X” — or asks for information — “please update me on matter X” — you’ve already blown it. Anticipate the client’s curiosity, and satisfy it before the client asks — even if absolutely nothing has happened: “I know you’re interested in matter X, and I just wanted to advise you that nothing has happened since I sent my last e-mail on this subject two weeks ago. I will, of course, let you know immediately about any new developments.”

That provides an update and comforts the client that you’re not keeping secrets.

Remember: “I don’t know what’s going on; Herrmann hasn’t told me” is a complaint. On the other hand: “I know that nothing is going on, because Herrmann told me so” is a report (and a satisfied client).

If nothing happens for another week or two (or less, or more, depending on the significance of what you’re monitoring), send another e-mail reporting that there’s no new news. If you’ve guessed wrong, and your audience didn’t want the update, then the recipient will delete your e-mail in a nanosecond. If you guessed right, you’ve proven yourself to be responsive and responsible.

Being responsive — there’s nothing to it. Why do so many people mess this up?


Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at [email protected].


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