Client Communication & Cool Hand Luke

Conventional wisdom is that the most common complaint against attorneys is “I never hear from my lawyer.”  Not true.

Communication lies at the heart of most complaints.  However, it’s usually not a total lack of communication that leads to an ethics complaint.

It’s the confusion that follows a failure to communicate reasonable expectations at the outset of the representation.

I blogged on this topic here.  I wrote:

  • “I’m not talking about ‘my lawyer never calls me back.’  Yes, that would be an issue, but it’s rarely what I hear.  Rather, I’m talking about situations in which it’s as if the client and the lawyer are talking about two entirely different relationships.  The reason: failure to manage client expectations.

    “Here’s an example: I screened an ethics complaint in September.  It was clear that neither the client nor the lawyer had a clear understanding of what the other expected out of the relationship.  The result: a total breakdown in communication, hard feelings, stress, and an ethics complaint.”

A few days ago, I found a post on the LawPay blog.  It’s called The Art of the Interview: How to Interview Clients in a Way that Results in Reasonable Expectations  and was written by LawPay’s Director of Education, Attorney Claude Duclous.  There’s nothing earth-shattering in the post, but I think it’s fantastic.  Very simple tips that will help you to establish and manage expectations.

I’d add one of my own: set clear expectations as to how often you will respond to electronic communications from your client. Then, stick to what you said.  A new client can be like any other new relationship: at first, you can’t respond quickly enough to the latest text or e-mail.  That’s not feasible in the long-term.

Yes, if you were to ask me for a single phrase to summarize the thousands of complaints I’ve reviewed, I’d probably say “it’s like the warden said: ‘what we have here is a failure to communicate.’ ”

Don’t set yourself up for failure.  Rather, set clear & reasonable expectations at the outset.

Cool Hand Luke.jpg


3 thoughts on “Client Communication & Cool Hand Luke

  1. The Warden, played by Strother Martin, said “What we have here, is failure to communicate.” Luke had just escaped and been hauled back to the chain gang.

    In the penultimate scene, when Luke and Drag Line (George Kennedy) are holed up in a small church and the posse arrives with lights a blazing, Luke opens the door and recklessly shouts out “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” The Man With No Eyes (the mean-assed deputy who enforces discipline on the chain gang) then shoots Luke in the chest.

    I have often wondered why the warden said “failure to communicate,” while Luke said “a failure to communicate.” When I figure that out, I will post it.


  2. This is an excellent article. Setting realistic clear expectations is crucial. It should be recognized, however, that that is not always easy. No one likes to tell someone sitting across from you, who is hurting in some way, bad news. We are not trained or used to giving people who we care about information that will make them disappointed or hurt. But, I have found that most clients are grateful to hear your honest assessment. And if they aren’t grateful, you should be grateful that you found out early on that this is a client you don’t want to represent.


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