Meeting the Client for the First Time

CAUTION: This course does not discuss your obligation to engage in conflict of interest checks, or the rules about client identification (Rule 3-100). A good source of information is the Client Identification Practice Checklist of the relevant section of the Small Firm Practice Course. Always ensure that you comply with these rules and note that conflicts are a major cause of complaints to Law Societies. In determining a lawyer’s duties to a client, the court may be guided by the Law Society's conflict of interest rules, but is not bound by them, and may impose a much higher duty owed to the client (MacDonald Estate v. Martin, [1990] 3 S.C.R. 1235). Also review the BC Code, 3.4, regarding managing conflicts of interest.


a. First impressions

Clients should feel they have entered the office of a professional, which includes being greeted by a clean, tidy environment and being treated with politeness and respect. If you do not present a professional workplace to clients, they will not believe you are capable of commanding respect elsewhere.

After having been established in your location for a period of years, you might be surprised to find out what first time visitors think of the place. Time has a way of helping to accumulate detritus- old magazines, tatters in your upholstery, faded paint on the walls, an old light fixture not quite up to the task. Try walking into your office with fresh eyes once in a while and see if the gloss has worn off. Updating need not be expensive or time consuming and often costs only the time it takes to slow down and appreciate your environment anew.

You should treat your staff with courtesy and respect and demand that they do the same with everyone who enters or contacts your office.

Be punctual. If you anticipate being late, get a message to the client ahead of time. In circumstances where you are unable to do so, ensure someone in your office can explain to the client that you are delayed and when you will be available. Being late for meetings or court appearances is a sign of disrespect and sloppy practice. Seek assistance for improving your time management skills before lateness becomes a habit.

b. Listen and think before you respond

You will establish a good relationship with your clients if you listen to what they say, think about what they have told you, and then respond. You should resist the temptation to assume you have heard the client’s story before and know the solution. In the same vein, you should resist the temptation of speaking over the client in a rush to demonstrate that you are clever, wise, and know the answer to their problem. Develop the habit of letting the client speak, then narrow the issues with follow-up questions, and don’t hesitate to let the client know (when appropriate) that you want to do additional work to test your initial assumption about their situation. If you don’t listen, you are more likely to make mistakes and offend your client.

c. Match your style with the client's needs

Set the ground rules for communication as soon as you meet your client. Tell your client how you prefer to communicate, but be sensitive to his or her needs. Your client, for example, may not have a computer to access emails, may be functionally illiterate, or may not be fluent in English.

Don’t assume that one size fits all.

Tell your clients that you will try to return their communications in a timely fashion, and let them know when they can expect a reply. Explain that there may be a delay in responding to their call, but that you are committed to resolving their legal problems.

It is a good idea to record the communication plan in the retainer letter. (Retainer letters are discussed later in these materials.) If your client constantly requests updates and information, you need to actively manage his or her expectations. Ignoring the communications is not the solution.

d. Fee estimates

Fee estimates are difficult. Communicating effectively with the client is essential for preventing disagreements later in the process.  The BC Code rule 3.6 sets out the various factors which should be considered when setting your fee estimate, including but not limited to: the time and effort expected to be spent on the matter, the level of difficulty of the matter, whether any special skills are required, the expected results, any special circumstances like the urgency of the matter, and the experience and abilities of the lawyer.  Every lawyer should have an agreement with their client, in writing, setting out these expectations as full disclosure can provent problems later in the relationship. Every lawyer owes their client a duty of candour in communicating their fees and disbursements, their fees must be fair and reasonable, and fully disclosed in a timely fashion. If problems do develop, your fees can be reviewed under the provisions in Part 8 of the Legal Profession Act, and the registrar can consider your fee estimate in determining whether your fee was fair and reasonable.

Communicating effectively with your client about fees involves more than providing a fee estimate. It requires putting that estimate in context based on the facts, the services the client is seeking, and informing the client if issues arise that may change your initial estimate. It is a good idea to explain the steps that you need to take on the file, and an estimate of the time required for each step. You can explain the settlement process at the same time, and the effect of a settlement on the estimated fee. Your estimate of fees should also include an explanation for how the fees will be calculated, how disbursements will be calculated and charged, and expected timelines for the payment of fees. 

For more information on legal fees, see the rule 3.6 of the BC Code, or "Disputes involving fees and the Law Society Fee Mediation Program". Also helpful is the yearly "Lawyers' Remuneration" chapter of the Continuing Legal Education Society of BC's Annual Review of Law & Practice provides a good overview of developments in the area of lawyers’ remuneration; see also Gordon Turriff, Q.C., Annotated British Columbia Legal Profession Act (Canada Law Book: looseleaf).

Community Discussion

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Retainers for files not only make sense from the perspective of law office economics, but there is nothing worse than the feeling of working for someone who cannot/or will not pay you and in certain circumstances can prejudice your view of the file.

Many of my clients are on a fixed income and I find myself gearing my fees towards what they can afford and not what I expect to make as a lawyer. Many people who are not used to lawyers or who have not had lawyers representing them on legal matters tend to be weary of lawyers anyway and I spend some time gaining their trust. It is important to be honest about what the actual costs is and what they can expect to pay for legal services i.e. the ordinary fee might be $30.000 but the client can barely afford $3,000. If the case is interested and complictated I will usually opt for the lesser fee and greater challenge.0

The Code of Professional Conduct outlines the chain of communications throughout the retainer. I recommend that if lawyers are learning an area of law based on a retainer, that the lawyer recognize that he will loose money on the first retainer but by doing a good job will have a client for life.

It helps to provide your client with a copy of the motions and briefs you file on behalf of the client to show the behind the scenes work that is being done in a tangible manner.

By clearly communicating with the client about the scope of work, steps required, estimated time and costs involved the client feels that you are transparent with them. I always put a very detailed quote (listing all of the foregoing) directly in the retainer letter. The same material is then discussed in detail in person or on the phone to ensure no incorrect assumptions were made. This has made working with clients and billing a much smoother process and results in happy clients.

When providing a fee estimate it is better to provide that estimate at the highest end of the anticipated range. If you can resolve the client's legal matter to the client's satisfaction at a fee that is lower than the estimate, the client will be generally be appreciative. If your fee is higher than you estimate, and it exceeds the client's expectations it can be a source of frustration, and even worse, hostility.

A young lawyer doing criminal defence work should perhaps be cautious about the advice in part b - that generally good and sound advice - to let the client speak. In a civil case this is, in my experience, good advice. You learn a lot from listening, including early impressions of what kind of witness your client might make. In almost all situations it is good advice. In a criminal case, however, a young criminal defence lawyer might want to get further input from a leading practitioner of the criminal defence bar on this point before wholly adopting this approach in each and every case, as different considerations could apply, at least in some criminal cases, when meeting the accused client for the first time.

The importance of listening to a client (beofre jumping in with the answer) is spot on.

When giving fee estimates in litigation matters, it is a good idea to emphasize that the client cannot control what steps the other side wishes to take and that the fees will be affected by what they choose to do and not to do - in ther words, the client a cannot assert total control over the cost.

Mastering the art of detecting non-verbal cues is important. Equally crucial is learning how to draw out from the client what the lawyer feels is not being brought to the table without offending the sensitivty of the client. The lawyer then needs to decide whether he/she is equipped with necessary information to serve the client effectively.

Honesty about the facts of the client's case are vital at the initial meeting, including avoiding promising impossible results (or improbable) and under quoting the fee for the services. This is the time to assess the potential lawyer-client relationship and whether the lawyer has the capacity to take on this matter as well.


Reporting letters are essential in maintaining sound and coherent client communications, particularly when acting for institutional clients or when counsel is retained by third party agencies, such as LSS. Concrete and frank advise about the progress (or lack therof) of a file is a key part of keeping a client on top of the anticipated cost and outcome as the file progresses.

While not directly related to the first meeting a good, and simple, way of ensuring good continuing communication about the status of the file is to copy your client with every communication you send or receive on the file.  They know what you are doing, when it is being done, and where you are at, without the need for a follow up phone call or reporting letter.  Once I do this I often get a call from the client to discuss the current status.....and now everybody is up to date, and your promises to communicate are constantly being met.

Discuss fee estimate first.  If the work is going to be pro bono, you better know it before you do the work.

Often a client wants to be heard.  Listening to the client is important for the lawyer as it may serve as a guide to assess your client in terms of the work and your working relationship with the client.  Information such as whether they have had previous counsel working on the file, their ability to pay, potential communication issues help with forming the retainer. Letting the client know the next steps verbally and in writing (including a retainer) is effective in terms of communication. 

It is worth taking the time to discuss communications and fees upfront, and then backing it up with a clearly written retainer letter.

Perhaps the most important thing is to ensure the client is aware of the possibility, where the evidence warrants it, that the result may cost more than any possible benefit to the client.  An example would be a legal claim where the amount of a successful claim is outweighed by the costs of pursuing the claim.

Sometimes, a client will say things like:  "Money is no object" or "It is a matter of principle".  It is probably a good idea in such cases to provide a very detailed description of the fee and billing information, and to commit it to writing in the retainer letter.  It may also be useful to consider requiring a sizeable retainer, as this helps to bring home to the client that the cost could be high.  It gives the client an opportunity to reconsider whether or not they can afford to bring the claim, and/or whether or not the principle is really that important.

It is also important to avoid making promises regarding the outcome in litigation matters.  Additional evidence might become available, or the assigned judge for the trial may not be favorably disposed to your client's position.  Letting the client know about the risks is a particularly important to creating a good relationship based on realistic expectations.

It is also important to ensure that the client is aware of the worst-case scenario, so that they can make an informed decision about whether or not the litigation is worth pursuing from their perspective.

In general, I am careful to ensure that litigation clients are aware that I do not provide any guarantees about the outcome.  All I can promise is that I will do the best job on the file that I am able to do.