The Electronic Client

April 2, 2014 § 6 Comments

Even though my practice has been closed more than seven years, I continue to get emails from “prospective clients” about possible representation, I guess because my email address is registered with the MSB. (Memo to self … do something about this).

I say “prospective clients” because they claim to be seeking representation, but I believe they are as bogus as [supply your own simile]. All of their emails bear a resemblance to those of the Nigerian scammers who rained get-rich-quick schemes down on American lawyers and bankers for years like some kind of perseid meteor shower of fraud.

In only the past few weeks, I have received a dozen or so emails asking my help in various legal matters.

  • One lady wants me to collect a judgment from her ex-husband who is around $800,000 in arrears in child support, alimony and medical expenses. Ouch. No idea where he lives. I’ve gotten several from her.  
  • Another, “Mrs. H,” simply wants “legal advice.”
  • Yet another, with a Latina surname, who says she is “on assignment in Hong Kong,” wants me to collect more than $800,000 (hmmm … that’s a familiar amount) from her ex “who lives in North America.” Yes, that narrows things down nicely.
  • A man (supposedly a man, that is) emailed me to say that he had called my law office and was informed that I was out for several days, so he was contacting me by email. That’s interesting, because I thought I had closed my law office in November, 2006, before taking the bench. I’ll have to check into that.

Those are only from last week. Earlier in the year I had a couple of emails from an alleged architect who wanted my help collecting a big fee, a few with the usual inheritance-hung-up-in-the-UK scam, and so on. I have been tempted to respond to one of these simply to discover how these get-rich-quick schemes operate, but my better judgment persuaded me that I might get haplessly get sucked into something too big to extract myself from, so I passed.

When I practiced, clients dropped by the office and we talked until we reached a mutual decision about engagement. Habitual clients sometimes re-engaged via phone. But picking up clients by email was not done. I wonder whether that’s changed.

I can see someone making an email first contact, along the lines of “My cousin Joe Smith whom you represented in a child custody case referred me to you. Do you handle collection of child support in Jones County? If so, I would like to make an appointment.”

But until I met that emailer, and looked over her paperwork, and we could discuss a fee arrangement eye to eye, I think I would not be interested in getting involved. I would want to size up her demeanor, ask questions about the case, and get the details about how she got where she is. There may be other claims she can and should assert. I don’t know how to flesh all that out in email.

A lawyer complained to me last week that, since he enrolled in electronic filing, he has started getting emails from clients. I gathered from the tone that he did not regard it as a welcome development. He is an older lawyer, and most likely does not use email much, and probably not at all up to now in the practice of law. Email has probably passed him by.

Not so with the younger lawyers. I have heard them talk of having to respond to this or that email from clients. One recently told me of an ongoing email argument with a client over how to handle a certain matter. She said she spent most of an entire weekend engaged in a back-and-forth with the client. That’s a novelty to me. I never spent much time arguing with clients in any form or fashion. If the client thought he could do a better job than I, well then, have at it. I have other things I could be doing that are probably less stressful.

Judiciously used, email could be a great tool for communications with clients in family law matters. Notice of settings and appointments, reminders of deadlines and need for documents, questions needed to answer discovery, all are legitimate uses. But the familiar family law routine of unending what-if questions, the constant need for reassurance, the minor gripes and complaints about the other party and his scurrilous relatives, the drama, all should be reserved for the in-person meeting. You can control office times and appointments, but email is 24/7. If you don’t limit your contact, you could face a never-ending barrage of emails that demand constant attention until you burn yourself out trying to keep up. And the more you respond and reciprocate, the more you are elevating your client’s expectations about this form of communication and your willingness to participate in it.

That’s my take, admittedly out of the practice loop these past seven or so years. Do you see it differently?

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§ 6 Responses to The Electronic Client

  • thusbloggedanderson says:

    The only such I’ve ever responded to was via LinkedIn, from a real business (had a real website, anyway) in the UK no less. I left a message not with the proffered email address but on the phone of the business. No response, surprise.

  • Bob Wolford says:

    GREAT TOPIC, JUDGE! I’ve been lamenting over this development over the past couple of years. Please allow me to step onto my soap box for a moment-

    The modern cell phone is probably going to the downfall of our society because we’ve turned into a culture of immediate and instant response. That’s affected the practice of law in a negative way because now, the client’s anxiety level is much higher than it was 10 or 15 years ago. Used to be that if a client had a question, they would call the law office and leave a message. Ideally, lawyer calls back within 24 hours, and the question is dealt with. Now, it’s cells phones, and when that doesn’t work the client starts texting. When the lawyer doesn’t respond to the text, here come more texts asking the lawyer why he didn’t respond. The whole thing spins out of control from there.

    And then of course there’s the client or prospective client who sits down in your office but constantly has to interrupt the visit to see who’s calling her and, sometimes, takes the call or responds to a text, and she justifies it by saying some nonsense like, “I HAVE to take this, I’m sorry!!”. Very aggravating, not to mention my church’s order of worship has printed on the front “Please turn your cell phone to silent or off.” When folks can’t go without their smart phone for an hour or so on Sunday morning, you know it’s bad.

  • Winky says:

    Good advice that I needed to hear and be reminded of. Thanks.

  • hale1090 says:

    Only a few times have we picked up a client by email. Most call first. Legitimate clients who contact us by email first have a real addresses and phone numbers indicated in their initial emails. They can provide documents in the second response to substantiate assertions and the next contact is over the phone.
    Email is good for informing, as you have pointed out, and avoiding “phone tag.” Email is not good for resolving misunderstandings. The “send” button can be a dangerous thing. My friends and colleagues have shared some snarky emails they have received from members of the Bar. Pretty funny they are.
    I still need to pick up the phone and/or meet to figure out what is really going on.

  • The problem nowadays is cell phones. I make a practice never to call a client on my personal cell phone if at all possible. Once you do, they will call and text you at all hours of the day and night like you are their new bff. I have made some mad by refusing to give my number out, but my response is that I can’t do much on the weekend, after 5, or when the courthouse is closed. Leave a message on my office machine and I will get it at 6:00 the next morning.

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