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First impressions: enhancing your Terms of Engagement

30 November 2017 - By Lisette Solis

First impressions can be everything.

“Business owners often spend a great deal of time and resources on keeping their existing clients, by cultivating good relationships and maintaining a high standard of customer service. Consistently making a strong first impression is essential to gaining new customers and clients, what every business must do to succeed.” — George N Root III.

Think about the impression you and your firm make when you meet a new client. Do they leave comforted in the knowledge that you are there to protect their interests with the confidence to contact you with any concerns? Or are they left with the dread of how much this will cost, confused about what will happen next but too embarrassed to say so?

A new client will typically leave that first meeting with at least two things: a first impression and a copy of your terms of engagement. If that impression is not what it could have been, will your terms of engagement save the day? If it doesn’t what are the implications for your relationship with that client and the work that will be performed?

Clear and easy to understand

When asked what advice he would give lawyers to avoid complaints, a senior member of the Lawyers Complaints Service suggested lawyers should “make sure their terms of engagement are clear and easy to understand.”

Terms of engagement play a critical role in establishing the expectations between lawyers and their clients. The problem is that typical terms of engagement are dense and legalistic. Instead of informing the client, they can add to the confusion and inhibit the kind of free and frank discussion that is key to a healthy and productive working relationship. In time, this can ultimately fracture that relationship resulting in dissatisfaction and complaints.

Is there a way to cut through the legalese whilst ensuring the terms of engagement still cover the must-have information? We think there is.

Making wholesale changes to your terms of engagement is not an option, as much of that important detail is essential to protect both parties and some is also required by the Lawyers and Conveyancers Act (Lawyers: Conduct and Client Care) Rules 2008 (rules 3.4 and 3.5).

Simple short summary available

picture of a cover letter

The Lawyers Complaints Service has designed a simple short summary that can be given to clients with your current terms of engagement.

That summary can inform the client and help to set the expectations of your relationship. It can also assist in creating that all-important strong first impression. By highlighting the key features of the lawyer-client relationship, it assists the client’s understanding of what is required from them and what they can expect from you. More importantly, it can prompt the kind of open dialogue that is key to any successful business relationship. For instance, making it clear that it is perfectly okay for the client to contact you to clarify anything or to discuss any concerns they may have will improve communication and hopefully avoid most common complaints.

Will it make any difference?

A review of all Lawyers Standards Committee decisions issued in the 2015/2016 year reveals the most commonly raised complaints by rules are:

  • Competency and timeliness – rule 3,
  • Discourtesy – rule 10, and,
  • Fair and reasonable fees – rules 9 and 9.1.

Consistent themes raised in these complaints include: delay, discourtesy, or the failure to respond. While the vast majority of these complaints find the lawyer has not breached their professional obligations, the question is how you can avoid them in the first place.

Communication is a two-way street, but if expectations in this area are not established at the outset, clients will typically rely on you to initiate all contact and may complain when their expectations are not met.

Nearly 12% of the complaints received during the 2016/2017 year were about lawyers either failing to confirm their instructions or acting without them. About 22% of complaints received were about inadequate communication from the lawyer. How many of these complaints could have been avoided if the client and lawyer had engaged in a meaningful discussion at the outset to establish their expectations?

Fee complaints

The other major source of complaints is fees. Complainants often complain they were charged a fee they were not expecting or prepared for. Communication and expectation, again, are often at the heart of these matters. If the client is aware of what will increase your costs this may provide them with some feeling of control over this aspect of your relationship.

More often than not, the client will have received the required client care information (including your terms of engagement) however, they will have either forgotten what it said, failed to understand it, or simply not read it – an altogether human trait when faced with a long and detailed contractual document. This highlights the importance of setting out some key features in a way that is accessible and understandable to your clients and which they can read at a glance.

Based on the complaints it receives, the Lawyers Complaints Service believes that improved communication at the outset of the lawyer-client relationship could make all the difference. Not only could a number of common complaints be avoided, it could lead to a greater retention of clients and repeat instructions. A better relationship makes for a happier client.

What can you do?

It is up to you to choose how you want to address the issues set out above.

The Lawyers Complaints Service suggests providing the summary as a covering document to your standard terms of engagement. You can add your law firm’s logo.

It highlights the key features of the lawyer client relationship and is designed to encourage discussion and interaction. It is not meant to replace the client care information. It is designed to help both parties establish their expectations and encourage clients to raise issues directly with their lawyer.

Anything that can improve your first impression and avoid being the subject of an unnecessary complaint is surely worth considering.

The summary can be downloaded and is kept on the Client Care page. Lawyers can use this version or alter it to meet their specifications. Some points of the summary, such as the information about fees, may not apply to every situation and lawyers are encouraged to edit as necessary.

The Lawyers Complaints Service would appreciate any feedback on the above article or your experiences if you decide to adopt the short one page summary terms of engagement. Feedback can be directed to TOEfeedback@lawsociety.org.nz.


Lisette Solis has been employed by the New Zealand Law Society to analyse complaints and other communications considered by the Lawyers Complaints Service.

Last updated on the 1st December 2017