I was recently asked to speak at a continuing legal education seminar for the Missouri Bar Association. The topic: How to deal with difficult clients from a legal ethics perspective. While the typical and expected angle would have been to talk about documenting communication with the client, avoid missing deadlines and how to withdraw from claims and clients that become too problematic, I had a different approach. Instead of "dealing" with the difficult client, what if you keep the client from becoming "difficult" in the first place?
Over the years, I have had several clients who worked with other attorneys either on prior claims or where the client actually terminated the other attorney's services on the claim I took over. More often than not, the biggest complaint I would hear as that the other attorney, "never explained anything to me. I never knew what was going on or why." The workers' compensation system is already frustrating enough on its own. The procedural delays, the limitations on benefits to be paid, and the disinterested insurance company are already sources of annoyance and anger. Your attorney shouldn't be another one.
When an injured worker contacts an attorney, he or she generally wants two things: answers and action.
By the end of the initial consultation, the client should have a good understanding of the benefits and relief that are available in workers' compensation (and no, it's not millions of dollars like on T.V.). By gaining a realistic expectation of the outcome that can be achieved, there's less chance of being disappointed once it's actually accomplished. In addition, the client should be told of any difficulties or defects that may exist in his or her claim. If there are some facts that may make the claim harder to prove or that may cause delays as certain procedural battles are waged, they should be identified and explained up front. That way, there are no surprises for the client when the insurance company starts trying to put up legal barriers that need to be knocked down.
Once the available benefits are identified and understood, and any issues or problems that may exist in pursuing those benefits are discussed, the plan of action needs to be laid out. Will an evaluation with your attorney's doctor be required? Will there need to be a hearing in front of the Judge to get you your medical treatment and temporary disability for lost time from work? How long will all of this take and what can be done to make the other side do something!?
Each potential step can be identified as well as the likely timeframe. Then, as each step is taken, you as the client should be able to see it happening so you know things are being done on your behalf. Whether you're being copied on a letter or e-mail being sent out on your claim or simply having your phone call returned, you should always know where your claim is in the process, what should happen next and how you're going to get there.
You as the client deserve to know these things. Frankly, if you are given this information, and then see that things are being done as you were told they would be, this makes our jobs easier as well. It allows us to focus our time on moving our clients' claims forward as opposed to responding to doubts and uncertainties that clients shouldn't be left to deal with on their own. As I stated before, the system itself and the people on the other side of it are already enough to get frustrated about. Your attorney should be limiting this frustration, not adding to it! If you ever do have questions about what can be accomplished on your behalf and what it would take to get there, don't hesitate to call. A little communication can cure a lot of difficulties.