Lawyers and their clients often build strong connections that extend beyond merely the professional relationship that might have first brought lawyer and client together. As many readers knows from firsthand experience, attorneys and their clients can forge strong connections from the often intense interactions they might face over the course of years and even decades. Even if lawyers and clients do not become friends such that they see each other often in social contexts, clients might reach out to lawyers for friendly reasons that do not directly relate to their professional relationship.
A while ago, I represented a client in a variety of matters over the course of a long time. We ended up interacting on an almost daily basis since we needed to discuss this client’s legal issues. These interactions became friendlier after each of us got to know a little more about the other outside of the attorney-client relationship.
Over time, the client began calling me when the client was in the car, sometimes daily, as the client commuted to the office. A handful of times, there would be a legal reason for the call, but other times, the client called for no apparent legal purpose and just seemed to want to talk to someone while in the car. In some instances, the client would try to pivot to a legal question so that the call had a purpose other than to chit-chat on this client’s commute. But other times, the client would just talk about social matters that had no connection to the legal work that my firm was completing for the client.
In other instances, clients seem to want to continue the attorney client connection after the natural conclusion of a given representation. I once represented a client on a flat-fee basis for a discreet legal issue. We worked together for the few months that it took to handle this legal issue, and the client seemed satisfied with the work performed by my firm. Once the legal matter closed, I assumed that I would no longer be interacting with this client.
However, the client continued communicating with me every few days just like during the representation. Often, the communications did not relate to the work for which I had been retained in the first place. I got the sense that the client might have been lonely and missed the steady interaction. I went along with these interactions for a while just so that the client could have a solid off-ramp to the attorney-client connection.
Of course, sometimes attorneys and clients become genuine friends. Attorneys and clients can have similar backgrounds, shared interests, and other characteristics that make for good friendships. Indeed, I have attended housewarming parties for former clients, and just this past weekend, I ran the Brooklyn Half Marathon with a client. I am sure many lawyers have forged strong friendships with clients throughout the course of their careers. The more delicate situation is when a current or former client is not quite a friend and wants to mix the attorney-client connection with socializing in a way that might not be welcome to the attorney.
There are a few ways to handle a situation in which a client calls to chit-chat rather than to discuss legal issues. Generally, I do not charge for such communications, or I only charge for the time during such calls when legal matters were discussed. Such calls do take up my time that I could devote to tasks for other clients, but I take a generous approach when it comes to reducing legal fees for more social interactions. I am sure different lawyers have different policies on this situation, but it usually makes sense not to fully charge a client for more social calls.
In some scenarios, it makes sense to be firmer about boundaries in the attorney-client relationship. For instance, if a lawyer agrees to a flat-fee arrangement, and a client continues to reach out to the lawyer under the auspices of such an arrangement, but more likely for social interaction, then the lawyer should point out that the flat-fee relationship has ended. This helps ensure that everyone is more comfortable with expectations of attorney and client.
All told, I am all for attorneys and clients becoming friends and having friendly interactions. Indeed, having friendly connections with current and former clients has really enriched by social life. However, lawyers need to keep a few things in mind when clients reach out to them for more social than legal reasons.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at email@example.com.
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