How to Hand Off a Client to an Associate

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You have enough work to keep a number of associates busy. Good for you. Sometimes, though, you find yourself running interference between an associate and a client. You ask an associate to help out with a particular matter, and the engagement results in the associate communicating directly with the client. That’s when the client balks.

The client might feel slighted. They sometimes wonder, and sometimes ask, why they’ve been pawned off to a more junior lawyer.

I could give you all kinds of advice about the timing of the handoff. Earlier is better. In fact, in a perfect world, the associate handles the entire onboarding process, and your only involvement is as the rainmaker with the connection to the client.

I could tell you how to present the associate as a less expensive alternative, and how to pump up the benefits of cost savings while you extol the advantages of a younger, hungrier lawyer doing the day-to-day grunt work on the client’s behalf.

I could tell you how to smooth over the transition so that it’s seamless and the client barely notices that the work is being handled by someone other than you.

But all of that advice presupposes a considered, deliberate transition from a senior to a junior, and those smooth transitions aren’t the ones I’m talking about here. They aren’t the ones that result in an upset client screaming into the phone. It’s the unexpected handoffs, the ones that occur in a harried moment, when our work schedule gets messy, that result in client upset. That’s our focus.

It’s a shitty situation

Imagine with me for a moment–and we’ve all had something horrible like this happen–that you’re in a hospital bed, lying in a pile of your own waste. Something has gone horribly wrong. It’s ugly, it’s embarrassing, and it’s the last thing you ever wanted to have happen.

I’ve spent plenty of time in hospitals over the past two decades, for surgery and tests. It’s not pretty. Maybe you thought it was just gas–I know I did.

You urgently press the call button. Some nice person rushes in and you point to the emerging disaster. He nods knowingly, calmly, confidently. He rolls you over, cleans things up, changes the linens, and offers to change the channel on the TV.

Did you care that he wasn’t your doctor? Of course not. Did you care that he, a stranger, managed your case during the crisis? Nope. Were you worried that you’d been handed off to a junior person? No.

When someone caring and concerned steps up, steps in, and calmly communicates and takes action, you’re satisfied. Often you’re pleased. Frequently, you end up delivering high praise for the person who guided you through your upset moment.

Most legal problems are also a pile of waste. They require a caring person who communicates and takes action. Their resolution isn’t dependent on a particular person handling the cleanup, and the clients don’t become more upset unless the help they’re getting is inadequate or ineffective.

What they appreciate is that the sheets were changed: who changed them is trivial.

What they don’t like is when there’s no action and when communication is lacking–when the call button is ignored, or when they press the button and a stranger pops his head in to tell them he’s going on a smoke break, but will be back in an hour to take a look at things.

Client handoffs are rarely elegant and well-timed

The reality of most client handoffs is messy. They don’t happen in a streamlined, systematic, easy-going manner. Most happen somewhat haphazardly, and those are the handoffs which go awry.

The more experienced lawyer gets caught up in something unexpected. And then something else hits, and the waves of work continue. The senior lawyer knows she’s ignoring certain clients. She knows the upset level is rising. But she can’t do all of the work that has suddenly piled up on her desk.

She needs help. Often she waits too long to call in reinforcements. The mess is way out of control by the time additional resources are added to the mix.

It’s going to be messy because now the associate needs not only to do the work, but also to calm the upset and get the client back on track, all while learning the issues and the law related to the case. It’s like doing the remedial work and the advanced work at the same time.

Borked handoffs have this in common

When a handoff goes badly, it’s nearly always the fault of the associate. Yeah, I know associates hate it when I blame them, but in this instance, it’s usually the case. Of course it’s true that the senior lawyer should have anticipated the need to make a handoff and done it in a smooth, orderly fashion before hitting the eject button. But, that’s not how life in a law firm works. Associates are expected to rise to the occasion.

Most often, the problem is that the associate under-communicates and delays interaction. They get the assignment and then have lots of reasons for failing to move forward with communication.

The client is already upset with the lack of action. Then the associate makes it worse by moving slowly.

The client’s frustration continues even if the associate does act, because they often fail to inform the client of the activity.

You know the one about the tree in the forest, right? What about this one: if the associate prepares the motion but the client doesn’t know the motion was prepared, did the motion really get prepared?

Client communication is the key to client satisfaction. Let me say that again: client communication is the key to client satisfaction.

The associate must communicate their actions

If the associate doesn’t communicate adequately you’ll know. How will you know?

The client will complain about the handoff. They’ll tell you they’re upset that you’re not the primary lawyer anymore. But that’s not what they really mean.

The upset client is simply complaining about a lack of communication. They’ll complain even in the face of progress on their case. They don’t know it’s happening, you see, and it doesn’t feel as if it’s happening unless they’re being told that it’s happening.

The communication part of the associate’s role is an essential part. They must tell the client what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and what’s coming next.

Why associates fail to communicate

The under-communicating associate doesn’t like talking to clients. Full-stop.

It’s likely that they don’t like the communication for different reasons. Some humans simply don’t like talking to other humans. Many fear embarrassment. Many get very anxious about having to perform. There are many reasons for being disinterested in communication, and it’s not an easy problem to solve.

You’ll likely confront the associate about their lack of interaction. You’ll demand answers. “Why didn’t you call him back?”

They’ll have lots of excuses for their communication problem.

They’ll claim that they’re not up to speed on the file yet. They’ll tell you that they didn’t have any progress to report so they didn’t call. They’ll tell you that the client doesn’t like interruptions or that the client is too upset so they avoided aggravating the situation.

Bottom line: the under-communicating associate doesn’t want to communicate.

You can fix the problem. All is not lost. But it’s going to take time, mentoring, effort, monitoring, and feedback. You’ve got to teach the associate that client communication is a win for everyone involved. They’ve got to have positive client experiences. They need reinforcement that demonstrates the value of abundant client communication.

Teaching associates to communicate is especially difficult if you also dislike communicating with your clients. You are the role model. If you don’t communicate, your team won’t communicate. That’s the way life works. You’re the big dog. The little dogs model on you. If you want communicative associates, then you need to be communicative. Sorry.

Clients handoffs can go smoothly

Handing off clients can go much like our hospital bed analogy. The mess is cleaned up, the client starts to trust the associate who is solving the problem, and the relationship builds.

The client learns that the associate knows things, is quick to respond, communicates frequently, and gets problems solved. At that point, some clients may even mention their desire, going forward, to have the associate serve as their primary contact. Don’t be surprised when the client returns with a new matter and meets directly with the associate instead of you.

Solve the communication problem and you’ve solved the handoff problem. When associates are willing to communicate, they get rave reviews, you get time to focus on other matters, and clients refer their friends, family, and colleagues to the firm. Your practice grows, your associates grow, and the client wins. Handing off clients may be the best thing for everyone involved.

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