Attorneys have a duty to keep the lines of communications open with clients and apprise them of their case statuses. We wrote about ways to ensure your maintain good communications with clients here. Sometimes, though, clients are the ones guilty of disappearing on us or failing to return our calls or emails in a timely manner. What’s a practitioner to do when clients go missing in action (MIA)? We’ll take a look at the three different ways in which attorneys can alleviate an MIA client situation. For practitioners who have chronic MIA-type clients, this can be very helpful. Practitioners who seldom experience MIA clients should consider themselves lucky!
I. Before Representation Begins
The best way to avoid problems is to anticipate and plan around them either before or at the onset of representation. This helps to manage expectations on both sides.
A) Drafting Fee Agreements or Engagement Letters: If your clients tend to be corporate clients, then it could be helpful to incorporate a pre-arranged service level agreement into your engagement letters or fee agreements. If your clients tend to be individual or family-based clients, preparing your engagement letters or fee agreements by incorporating a provision regarding the frequency of follow ups will help to manage everyone’s expectations.
For example, some practitioners incorporate clauses that indicate only X number of follow ups will be made and any subsequent follow-ups will incur a fee of $__ to recover administration cost and time for excessive follow ups. Other practitioners do the opposite by including clauses that incentivize clients such that documents received within X days/weeks of the opening of a case will receive a dollar or percentage discount from the total legal fee. Still other practitioners may incentivize clients with a discount for exclusively using the practitioner’s online immigration case management system to check the status of their case, upload or download documents, or to send messages. (Hint: incentives work really well!)
The spirit of these provisions is not to punish clients, but rather, to encourage and reinforce the idea that your time (and theirs) is valuable and you want to ensure timely processing of their case. This helps to foster a level of trust and respect. The sooner you receive all necessary documents to commence or complete their case preparation, the sooner you’ll be able to file their case.
B) Client Information: Sometimes, managing expectations means you must also obtain all the necessary information from which to make informed strategy decisions. Most practitioners will collect all of the foreign national’s contact information, but what about the foreign national’s relatives, significant others or agents with whom you can reach if the foreign nation becomes MIA? Will your foreign national be traveling internationally and unavailable? Will they be in a remote location with limited internet or phone connectivity? If so, for who long? Knowing in advance that your client may be a hard-to-reach client and getting a realistic timeline from them will allow you to adjust your processing timeline in a reasonable manner.
II. During Active Representation
It’s great if we have everything mapped out in advance, but what happens if clients, during mid-representation, become MIA? The best strategy is to introduce some ground rules such as the provisions above. While it won’t be in the form of a contract, a polite and courteous letter informing an MIA client that excessive follow ups may incur additional administrative costs, or may negatively impact a strong immigration case may be the push the client needs.
III. When Effective Representation Is No Longer Possible
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you may not be able to obtain all the necessary documents to prepare a satisfactory case, all the while time is ticking away. It may be time to withdraw from representation of the case, assuming you won’t prejudice the client by doing so. (Check with your state bar’s rules of professional conduct or call your state bar’s hotline regarding the ethical implications of withdrawing representation.) You’ll definitely want to plan this strategy in advance of an “emergency” in the event you ever need to use it.
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