How to build good professional relationships; what solicitors need from you
– expertise, flexibility, preparation, rapport with clients, mutual respect, attention to detail
- Solicitors will come to you, initially, to do the work they cannot cover themselves, or where they do not want to deal with difficult clients. In time, if you do a good job they will develop confidence in sending work to you, and their clients will be reassured by your expertise.
- When you receive instructions from solicitors, it is always a good idea to give them a call. This instantly makes the relationship more personal and also gives them comfort that you have received the instructions and are on top of things. Before making the call (especially if it is to a solicitor you do not know) make sure that you are on top of the issues.
- It is usually a good idea, time permitting, to find out about the particular firm or individual who is instructing you. The clerks or other members of chambers will have a wealth of information and most firms have websites with profiles. Your approach to ringing the senior partner will be different to calling a junior paralegal!
Carolyn McCombe, Chambers Chief Executive says:
“I impress upon our junior tenants that it is important to gauge the seniority of the person you are dealing with and to be sensitive as to the level of formality to adopt when first speaking to them on the telephone or sending them an email. It should make a difference whether you are addressing the senior partner or a trainee and it is always worth remembering that the solicitor or client may be old enough to be your parent or grandparent. If in any doubt, it is safer to err on the side of formality and wait to be invited to use first names etc. One partner recently told me that if he receives any emails which start “Hi John” he deletes them without reading them.”
- It is also important, during the call, to try to understand what the solicitor is actually looking to achieve beyond the immediately pressing point. The solicitor will have their own views about the case and, in all likelihood, their own targets and pressures (which could be to do with turn-around times, fees or a combination of the two).
So what does doing a good job mean? Greg Cox, Partner and Litigation Solicitor of Simpson Millar Solicitors suggests:
- Don’t sit on papers. If a longer period of time is required make sure that the solicitor knows; client expectations can then be managed. It is better to be realistic and deliver on time than over-promise and fail to deliver.
- Don’t be afraid to ask your solicitor for more material if you need it.
- After attending a hearing solicitors will want concise reports and attendance notes.
- They are unlikely to complain if you set out action points in numbered paragraphs or bullet points.
- Similarly, they may not want lengthy advices on esoteric points of law (if they do, they’ll usually ask for them): what they will want is focussed, practical advice that will assist the lay client. If you need more time, or information, or if there is any difficulty with returning the work within agreed timeframes, try to speak to the solicitor directly.
- Solicitors are often very busy. A clear summary of the advice/report of hearing with next steps which is written in a form suitable to pass on to the client with minimal adaptation will be well received.
- Think about proportionality and the costs which the solicitor will be able to charge or recover. If the case is a modest or fixed fee case a long shopping list of actions or items is unlikely to go down well.
- When dealing with more junior solicitors remember that they might be looking to you to help with client management. A clear and unequivocal advice is a very helpful tool to manage clients. An advice which has many shades of grey, or which recommends that disproportionate and costly steps are taken and which doesn’t reach definitive conclusions can cause difficulties with client management.
- Similarly, in litigation, the opponent can be difficult or confrontational (either tactically or just because it goes with the territory). Helping a junior solicitor deal with or address such behaviour (suggesting a response or just re-assuring them that they are on the right track) will be appreciated.
Chambers Director Simon Boutwood says:
- Always acknowledge a piece of work as soon as you receive it. Your instructing solicitor will be glad to know you’ve picked up the papers – even if your message is simply to tell them you’ll get back to them as soon as you’ve had time to read them. It ensures the solicitor is abreast of what’s happening, enables him to speak positively of you to the client, and enhances his relationship with his client too.
- The most frequent request clerks receive from solicitors is for their barristers to send an attendance note as soon as they can after a hearing. If you do nothing else on your way back from court, email your solicitors with a note, so that they are briefed as to what happened before the client rings. Just the salient points will suffice, and bullet points are good. If you need to send a fuller note or to speak to the solicitor, say you will do so when you get back to Chambers.
- Solicitors want practical solutions. This is what the client wants too.
A senior clerk adds:
“If you need more time to complete a piece of work, be sure to ask your solicitor for it before the deadline for your having done the work expires. Many chambers run a diary system: your clerks can help you by diarising deadlines and dates for the return of papers. If they can’t, set up a diary system for yourself.”
- You don’t have to socialise with solicitors, but you may want to after getting a good result in a case or after a long-running case ends. If you have friends or contacts who are solicitors then maintain that relationship and let them know if you want to work with them.
- Whether or not you socialise with solicitors, if you have done a “good job” by hitting some or all of the points set out above, it is usually worth a short phone-call after a difficult case when the pressure is off to look back and reflect – making sure that the work you did was noted.
- Greg Cox suggests that being available as a sounding board prior to a formal instruction can be a good way of building relationships. The “what do you think about this…..?” call will invariably lead to an instruction on the point. A little care needs to be taken here to avoid being used for free advice and make sure that the formal instructions come. You may also find that you have no idea what the answer to the question is, but you can always offer to go and find out if they actually want to instruct you.
Simon Boutwood, Chambers Director adds:
“It is so very important to have contact with your clients. Think of a reason to get together with your solicitor over a coffee. If you see an article or hear of something that might be of interest to them, ring, or pop it in the post to them: “I saw this and thought of you”. Follow up with a call. “Did you get….?” “Any good?”
“Follow up on cases you haven’t been involved with for a while. Express an interest in feedback on what’s happening. By virtue of having completed their training requirements, it must be assumed that all barristers are competent and able. What will get you the work is the rapport you have with your clients. It’s all about building relationships.”
What we need from Counsel: Julian Wilson, Head of the Clinical Negligence Team at Thompson Smith & Puxon, says:
- Unless you can respond with the draft or advice within 14 days make sure you contact your instructing solicitor to give an accurate estimate of your timescale for producing the work requested. In particular, where there is a time limit do not leave the matter to the last minute.
- Check the instructions on receipt of the papers and, if necessary, ask for further information or documents. If a conference is required let your instructing solicitor know this at the outset as there may be difficulty in arranging a convenient time for the client and/or the expert.
- If asked for your opinion, give your opinion. Try not to defer giving that opinion while further information is obtained (unless it is absolutely crucial). Remember that your instructing solicitor is having to assess the strength of any claim on an ongoing basis usually with only partial information.