President's Message September/October 2014



No News Isn't Good News

Bruce W. McIntyre, Esq.
President, Rhode Island Bar Association


The anxiety our legal clients feel when we don’t communicate well with them leads them to assume things that are probably not true. And that is where trouble can begin.

   
When I entered my doctor’s examining room for the first time more than 20 years ago, I turned to hang my jacket on the hook behind the door, and I saw the sign that read: “No news isn’t good news. It is just no news”.

I turned to ask my physician about it. She smiled and said, “Patients are anxious about laboratory test results. They make assumptions about the results if they do not hear back. That is when the system can fail badly. I encourage them to pick up the phone and call me.”

I never forgot this exchange because it is applicable in so many areas of our life. The anxiety our legal clients feel when we don’t communicate well with them leads them to assume things that are probably not true. And that is where trouble can begin.

More than 20 years as medical board disciplinary counsel taught me straightforward communication with patients forms the foundation of patient satisfaction with the care delivery experience.

It is the same with attorneys.

The 39th Annual Report of the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of the State of Rhode Island underscores this problem. There are two tracts for resolution: Formal Complaints opened for Investigation; and informal intervention of staff attorneys who spend a lot of time speaking with complainants and the attorneys who are subject of the complaints. Underlying the vast majority of these complaints is poor communication. The clients just do not understand what is going on with their cases.

It isn’t always easy. In this era of texting, email, and social media, clients can be too demanding. The demands are often at unrealistic times such as 2 am.  Setting boundaries with clients is an important balance. It is critically important for clients to have a copy of documents and dates of key events. This is especially true when attorneys are billing against retainers.

New practitioners (and experienced attorneys may also benefit) can gain insights on the minimal standards for acceptable client communication by reading the Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct: Section and Comment on the Lawyer/Client Relationship Rule 1.4 Communication.

Managing a practice is not easy. The difficulty is compounded when clients are not kept reasonably informed of the case status and work performed.

I am reminded of a banner my former Health Director had in her office. It read: “Information is a resource, not a possession”. Clearly, lawyers and clients can benefit if we all treat our communications accordingly.