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August 2021


Client relationships are hard work. My dad taught me they’re worth it.

BY CARRIE OSOWSKI

Before he retired, my dad had a decades-long career running his own construction business. My parents divorced when I was six, so I spent my dad’s summer parenting time weekdays on job sites. As a result, I observed my dad’s work ethic as he drove over an hour each way to jobs, his leadership skills as he directed his work crew, and his creative talent as he built or remodeled beautiful buildings. But the most valuable lessons I learned from working with him had nothing to do with his physical labor. 

Nearly every customer my dad worked for came to have a personal relationship with him. More than one customer invited us to have home-cooked meals with them. A couple who owned a restaurant near our home hired my dad on multiple occasions to remodel their home as well as their restaurant. We were frequently invited to the restaurant after closing time to have special meals, and they even invited us to both of their children’s weddings. As a child, my dad’s close client connections seemed like the default model for professional relationships, but as a practicing attorney, I have realized that is not the case. Creating close, trusting relationships with clients requires hard work. When it’s done right, the rewards are immense. 

Be personable

The most obvious way to create a personal connection with a client is to be personable: People like to work with people they like. My dad worked hard during business hours, but when a client came home and he was showing them his progress, almost no topic was off the table, sometimes to my embarrassment. While I do not recommend taking his “anything goes” approach to non-work-related chats with clients, you should still be able to have non-case-related conversations with your clients. 

As a family law attorney whose parents divorced when I was six and agreed to joint legal custody when I was nearly 18, I have plenty of my own experiences I discuss with clients. Sharing my stories helps demonstrate to clients that I really do understand what they are experiencing. But it’s not necessary to share a client’s personal circumstances to build personal connections. During client intakes, I love to connect with clients over shared hometowns or ask questions about interesting job titles. When I have clients who are celebrating sobriety milestones, I vocally celebrate their success with them. While waiting for hearings to start, I talk to clients about numerous subjects, from how the Minnesota Twins are doing to happier topics, such as their plans for the coming weekend. But as many of you may know from your own experiences as the customer, there is a line where friendly conversation becomes too much. That line is different for every attorney and every client, but if your client is starting to look bored or offended, you have crossed it.

Set realistic expectations

Sometimes clients want outcomes that are impractical, if not impossible. The easy way to deal with this is to take their money, try for that outcome without warning them of the dim likelihood of success, and run for the hills the moment you get the court’s order. This may be a good way to accrue billable hours if business is slow, but it’s not a good way to create a lasting stream of business. 

One of my favorite projects my dad completed was a tile inlay in an entrance hall. The client wanted nearly the entire floor space to consist of intricate tiles, so the floor would look like a rug. My dad was hesitant to approach the project as requested, as he was concerned that the pattern would overwhelm the small space. He explained his concerns to the client and proposed an alternate design. Ultimately the client chose the design proposed by my dad, and every day we worked there, they raved about how happy they were with his suggestion. Not all clients took my dad’s suggestions, but my dad was able to complete each job knowing the client was presented with all available options, and they still ended up happy with his work.

In meeting with clients, I occasionally must tell one, “The judge won’t order that.” After I explain why, some clients will choose not to bring a motion, or at least modify their request. Of course, some clients cannot be swayed from what they want to ask for, and attorneys must abide by the client’s decisions (at least when it isn’t possible to withdraw from the representation). In cases where clients are asking for the improbable, I advise them as much in writing. If I am lucky, I will be wrong, and the judge will grant my client’s request. Even if I am right, the client who knows what to expect will be less angry about their loss than the client who thinks their case is a slam dunk. I was reminded of the importance of setting realistic expectations recently, when a client told me I changed his opinion of attorneys because I walked him through how he would lose on the pending matter so he could reach a fully informed agreement instead of taking his money and going through with a hearing he was bound to lose. 

Get the best outcome

While personal connections help in building a professional reputation, the outcome also matters. My dad often subcontracted for a company that did restoration work, and one day when we went to their office to get the details for a project we were fixing, we were greeted by the echoing shout “Superman is here!” I quickly found out my dad had been their go-to subcontractor to fix subpar work by the company’s own employees. 

Unfortunately, attorneys do not have as much control over the outcome of a case as contractors have over their work, but we can still have impact on how a client perceives the outcome. If an attorney does not spend any time while waiting for hearings preparing the client, and only focuses on talking about personal matters, clients will automatically believe more could have been done in their case, even before the decision is out, because they did not see the work being done. 

Once in the courtroom, how zealously you advocate for their case also affects clients’ perception of outcomes. After I had to fill in for another attorney during a custody and parenting time trial, the client told me how much he appreciated that I was representing him because of how strongly I made objections and questioned the other party. He sent me several emails reiterating how much he appreciated me fighting for him and saying how he would be recommending me to anyone who needed a family law attorney. 

Attorneys can also improve the likelihood of success by practicing oral argument and questioning techniques, putting in good research, and writing well. A couple of years ago I argued against a spousal maintenance modification in a crowded courtroom. When I left with my client and her parents, a woman followed us out of the courtroom and requested my business card because she was so impressed by my oral argument. As a bonus, my client won both that motion and the subsequent appeal. 

While the lessons I learned from my dad work for me, I know they will not work for everyone. During a consultation with a potential client, I was asked if I would be joking around with opposing counsel at mediation. I was taken aback by this question, and ultimately the client did not retain me. This client was not wrong for wanting her case to be handled this way, and I am sure the attorney she did retain provided her with excellent representation with a demeanor she appreciated. 

Some clients will make requests that you simply cannot accommodate. When that happens, withdrawal is usually an option. I have occasionally checked Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct 1.16 to determine whether I may withdraw from a case. When I am not sure if the rules permit me to withdraw, I request an advisory opinion from the Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board. A five-minute phone call with the staff attorney was well worth the headache of listening to my former client’s screaming voicemails disparaging me. Of course, there is no substitute for getting a client the best outcome. But when I know for certain I cannot help the client—whether it is because of the area of law, where jurisdiction lies, or simply because I lack the requisite knowledge—I am honest. I would rather my client get the right outcome with another attorney than the wrong one with me. 


CARRIE OSOWSKI graduated from the University of St. Thomas School of Law in 2015. She is an associate attorney at Dittrich & Lamers, P.A., where she exclusively practices family law.

 

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