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Client Feedback, Service & Teams
7 minute read | 7 months ago

News from the Trenches: When You (Inevitably) Mess Up, Don’t Make it Worse

Photo of Tara Weintritt By: Tara Weintritt

Tara Weintritt, Partner, Wicker Park Group

Daniel H. Weintraub, Chief Administrative and Legal Officer, Audax Group

This post is part of a series with Wicker Park Group in collaboration with Daniel Weintraub to continue bringing the client’s perspective to our readers.

Outside counsel will inevitably make mistakes. It may be a simple mistake like not copying your client’s in-house counsel on an email or something much more significant like inadvertently disclosing sensitive information. It’s not a matter of whether mistakes will happen but when they will happen.

Making a mistake, even a major one, may not end a client relationship. How you handle the mistake, however, may have serious repercussions. Any mistake is an opportunity—a chance to show your clients that you care about them and are deeply invested in the relationship. 

As one client said to Wicker Park Group in an interview:

The best firm I’ve ever worked with had a partner who was exceptional at [handling problems]. … If there was a problem and I brought it up with the relationship partner, he just handled it. He addressed it internally and said, ‘I’ll fix it.’ I want to work with someone like that. I don’t want someone to argue with me or get defensive. Just admit when there are mistakes, fix it and move on.

When things go off the rails, follow these guidelines to help the relationship get back on track. Below are actual quotes from law firm clients obtained during client interviews conducted by Wicker Park Group. Of course, if the mistake is likely to result in a legal malpractice claim, you may need to take a different course of action.

Immediately acknowledge the mistake.

“Some constructive feedback is that they are less quick to own something that is a mistake or an oversight. We are in this together, so let’s correct and move forward.”

Bad news does not get better with time, and outside counsel need to get in front of issues before they fester. As soon as you know about the mistake, tell the client. Don’t wait for the client to discover it. Clients may be less forgiving with the passage time. You also want to avoid the inference that you knew about the mistake but were hoping the client wouldn’t find out.

Don’t be defensive or blame others.

Humility is something I value—owning mistakes if they happen.”

Shifting the blame for the mistake only makes it worse. It didn’t work with your parents or your second-grade teacher, and it certainly won’t work with a client who is paying your firm tens of thousands of dollars (if not more) a year. If the mistake was made by someone else at your firm, take ownership of it. Nothing is more frustrating to a client than when you pitch the capabilities of the entire firm but separate yourself from the firm when a mistake is made. And if you have the urge to get defensive, put yourself in the client’s shoes and try to understand their perspective. They make the ultimate call on whether to hire you again.

Address even minor mistakes.

Ignoring the minor mistakes can add up to major administrative headaches. Just because it is small does not mean it shouldn’t be addressed. Indeed, often a minor mistake (for example, not including a signed copy of the contract in the closing binder) could damage the relationship long term. The mistake may seem minor to you but could nevertheless cause embarrassment for the client and ultimately overshadow all the good work you’ve put into a matter. 

Propose solutions and get client input.

“I know mistakes happen and have happened. But I don’t care about mistakes; I care about the remedies.”

After acknowledging and apologizing, offer solutions. Ask the client if they have specific solutions in mind, and if they don’t, present various solutions for the client to consider and let the client make the ultimate decision.

Implement systems to prevent the same mistake from recurring.

Some mistakes occur because of a faulty system or process at your firm (e.g., billing, communication, not having a written procedure on who should be copied at the client on emails, or how clients like to handle issues lists, closings, etc.). Fix the process to demonstrate that the firm has learned from the experience and to ensure the mistake does not happen again.

Share the situation with the entire client team (and beyond).

Don’t hide the mistake from others. Ensure everyone working with the client knows about it and can help avoid a recurrence. Consider sharing the situation more broadly if it might impact other client relationships at the firm or help others avoid a similar mistake in the future.

Consider whether to call or visit others at the client to demonstrate a commitment to resolution.

A bigger mistake may warrant an in-person apology. Ask your primary client contact for their feedback on whether a visit to company leadership to address their questions and share the resolution would be helpful. To demonstrate the firm’s commitment to resolving the problem and to the client relationship, have a senior leader in the firm visit the client to make the apology. Be sure you’ve remedied the situation with everyone affected by the mistake or risk further aggravating the client.

Always build on your understanding of the client, its industry, its risk tolerance and more.

Even the longest relationships are evolving. Keep in mind that you and your team should be continually learning about the client to provide top client service and tailored advice to help them achieve their business objectives. Get ahead of mistakes by continuously seeking feedback from your clients to understand what’s working well and what could be done better in the future. The more you understand the client’s culture and nuances, the more likely you are to avoid missteps.

(For more on maintaining and strengthening important client relationships, see our article here.)

Check in later to ensure the client is satisfied with the resolution.

Don’t assume everything is resolved without following up. Some remedies are easy to implement, while others might require a multistep process and involve multiple parties or departments. Depending on the situation, check back with the client 30, 60 or 90 days later with updates until the mistake is resolved and no further action needs to be taken.

Consider offering something of value to the client.

If the situation is significant enough, determine if a credit or write-off should be offered. Sharing in the loss shows you have skin in the game and are invested in the relationship. Or consider offering a future benefit to the client to incentivize continued work with the firm.  Just be careful not to pressure the client about continuing to work with the firm. Nothing is worse from the client’s perspective than feeling pressure from a law firm to continue working together when the client has had a bad experience.

Even when the mistake might be too great to overcome at one juncture, the door could crack open again. We heard from a client who fired a longstanding outside counsel but returned to the relationship later (at first on a trial basis and then with more work). The firm had apologized, addressed the mistake, and periodically checked in. 

Clients tell us again and again that while they know mistakes are going to happen, they care more about how outside counsel handle them:

“I understand things go wrong or they may need to miss a deadline every now and then. It is about taking responsibility for it and communicating early and often.”

Don’t avoid or ignore the mistake, no matter how seemingly small. Use the situation as an opportunity to demonstrate your care and attention. It will set you apart and strengthen the trust placed in your firm.