Law and Legal

Sometimes clients call lawyers just to chat.

Lawyers and their clients often create strong bonds that go beyond the mere professional relationship that may have brought lawyer and client together in the first place. As many readers know from personal experience, lawyers and their clients can forge strong bonds through often intense interactions that they may encounter over many years and even decades. Even if lawyers and clients do not become friends, so that they often see each other in a social context, clients may approach lawyers for friendly reasons that are not directly related to their professional relationship.

Some time ago I represented a client on a variety of issues for a long time. We ended up talking almost daily as we needed to discuss this client’s legal issues. These interactions became friendlier after each of us learned a little more about the other outside of the attorney-client relationship.

Over time, the client began to call me when the client was in the car, sometimes daily, as the client got to the office. Several times there was a legal reason for the call, but other times the client called for no apparent legal purpose and simply wanted to talk to someone while in the car. In some cases, the client tried to move on to a legal matter so that the call had a purpose other than to chat about that client’s commute to work. But other times the client was just talking about social issues that had nothing to do with the legal work my firm was doing for the client.

In other cases, clients seem to want to continue communicating with the lawyer after the natural conclusion of this representation. I once represented a fixed fee client on a controversial legal issue. We worked together for the months it took to resolve this legal issue and the client seemed to be pleased with the work my firm did. Once the legal matter was closed, I assumed that I would no longer interact with this client.

However, the client continued to communicate with me every few days, just like during the presentation. Often the messages weren’t about the job for which I was hired in the first place. I got the feeling that the client may have been lonely and missed constant communication. For a while, I agreed to these interactions, just so that the client had a solid connection between the lawyer and the client.

Of course, sometimes lawyers and clients become real friends. Lawyers and clients may have similar backgrounds, common interests, and other characteristics that make good friendships. Indeed, I attended housewarming parties for former clients, and just last weekend I ran the Brooklyn Half Marathon with a client. I am sure that many lawyers have developed strong friendships with clients throughout their careers. A more delicate situation arises when a current or former client is not exactly a friend and wants to mix the lawyer-client relationship with communication, which the lawyer may not like.

There are several ways to handle a situation where a client calls to chat rather than discuss legal matters. As a rule, I do not charge for such messages or charge only for the time of such calls when legal issues were discussed. Calls like this take up time that I could devote to tasks for other clients, but I take a generous approach when it comes to lowering legal fees for more social interactions. I’m sure different lawyers have different policies in this situation, but it usually makes sense not to charge the client the full price for additional social calls.

In some scenarios, it makes sense to be more rigid about the boundaries between attorney and client. For example, if an attorney agrees to a fixed fee, and the client continues to contact the attorney as part of that arrangement, but most likely for social interaction, then the attorney should indicate that the fixed fee relationship has ended. This helps ensure that everyone is more comfortable with the expectations of attorney and client.

In general, I am in favor of lawyers and clients becoming friends and maintaining friendly communication. Indeed, friendships with current and former clients have indeed enriched social life. However, lawyers should keep a few things in mind when clients approach them for more social than legal reasons.

Rothman Big headshotJordan Rothman is a partner at The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service law firm based in New York and New Jersey. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website that discusses how he paid off his student loans. You can contact Jordan at [email protected].

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