If there’s one thing I learned from practicing estate planning in Southwest Florida, it’s the importance of client communication. It is (or should be) well known among attorneys that the perennial number one complaint clients have about them is lack of communication. Polls and complaints to state bar and legal watchdog organizations routinely show that nothing bothers clients more not being kept informed of the progress of their case and not having their phone calls or e-mails returned. Laypersons or inexperienced attorneys are sometimes surprised to learn that malpractice and the mishandling of client funds take a back seat to mere silence in the hierarchy of grievances. But it makes sense. For lawyers, each case is one of dozens to be juggled and prioritized simultaneously, but for ordinary folks, legal actions are intense little bundles of hope, fear, or anger. Trusting your case to a lawyer and then waiting in the dark to hear what it happening is like dropping a sick child off at the hospital and then not being told whether or not she’s getting better or worse.
And in Naples, Florida, estate planning clients consist disproportionately of well-off retired people, most of whom have moved in from out of state. These folks often are looking for straightforward advice so they can revise their estate plans to conform to the laws of their newly-adopted state. From a practitioner’s point of view, their concerns are routine. Almost mundane. Certainly not urgent. But . . . these folks are retired. They have all kinds of time on their hands, and, especially if they are new arrivals, precious little else to occupy it. As if they are approaching near-light speeds, time slows down for them, so that a week in the attorney universe seems like a month in the client universe. So an unreturned phone call quickly leads to follow-up calls. You learn very quickly how important it is to keep your clients in the loop — even if there is no logical reason for them to be concerned.
The ideal solution is not just to reflexively tug on the electronic umbilical cord, but also, while doing so, to try to lend the client some perspective on the relative urgency of her issue. “Relative”, not to all of the other cases the attorney is handling — what could be more counterproductive than implying that you see this client’s case as less significant than those of other clients? — but to the rest of what the client has in her life. There will be times, sure, when a legal case will in fact be crucial to a client’s immediate well being. But for estate planners, at least, that is rare. Reassuring the client that you are taking her case seriously, while subtly suggesting that, because you are taking it seriously, she can afford to step away from it for a while and live life, is a humane and sensible way to foster both your own and your client’s sanity.
And this is true in many other fields of service. It is certainly helpful to me now as I counsel students eager to succeed in their careers. They know they crave attention, but attention alone will never ease their anxiety. Nor will a cold appeal to perspective alone work — simply telling someone not to worry about something is like reverse psychology! Only the combination of both helps my clients — and any clients or customers agitated about the progress of their affairs — both make progress and feel like they are making progress.