« "Tip of the Week" - Write a Blawg Review | Main | Why AVVO Will Hurt Lawyers »

January 05, 2009

How Saying "I'm Sorry" Can Help With Client Relations

I recently flew down to Florida for the holidays.  The day was unrushed and rather enjoyable. However, we flew Jet Blue and after we boarded our plane I heard one of the flight attendants say, "I don't know when the pilot is going to arrive.  We have no pilot."  I calmly used my cell phone to call those who were going to pick us up and told them we'll probably be delayed.

Shortly thereafter, the flight attendant made an announcement saying, "We expect to have at least a 45 minute delay due to our flight crew still being en route.  If we are longer than 45 minutes we will permit you to deplane."  Naturally, many passengers started to gripe, speculating as to why there was no flight crew, none of which was positive and reflected poorly on Jet Blue.  It was all speculation but tempers were flaring and the passengers were loaded for bear planning ways to complain, get a free flight, etc. 

Within the 45 minutes the crew arrived and immediately the Captain got on the loud speaker and said, "I'm sorry for the delay.  I could lie to you and make up all kinds of reasons for my delay but the truth is I screwed up on my schedule.  This is not Jet Blue's fault but mine alone. I'm sorry. I'll will do everything possible to get us there faster."  After that he cracked a few jokes about not knowing where we were headed, the passengers laughed and the mood lightened considerably.  He told the truth and apologized and sought to make amends. His open and honest and immediate admission of responsibility for the passengers' inconvenience and a true apology worked wonders in mitigating backlash against the flight crew and the airline. However, the story about the Captain's apology made a powerful impression and was retold in a very positive way.  The delay was secondary and proved inconsequential. The airline also comped everything normally charged during the flight including premium drinks and earphones.  A few days after the delayed flight I received an e-mail from Jet Blue apologizing for the inconvenience I suffered which included a $25.00 credit voucher towards my next flight.  There were at least 150 people on board.  You do the math.

This was a powerful lesson.  How often do we feel compelled to protect ourselves from possible rebuke from our clients by not offering up an apology for a mistake we made for fear that owning a mistake or apologizing for that mistake will diminish us in the eyes of our client or worse, set us up for a grievance or malpractice claim?  After all, being a solo you have no one covering your backside professionally or financially.

"I'm sorry." Why are those two little words so difficult to say? Perhaps because they hold such power. An honest apology can mend relationships, dissolve anger, soothe shattered pride or heal a broken heart. And a study conducted by the University of Michigan showed that apologizing can even have health benefits, such as lowering stress levels. Meanwhile, avoiding an apology makes relationships more strained -- and it can reveal something negative about you. Being incapable of apologizing can be a real character flaw."

There are three keys to a successful apology: regretting your actions, taking responsibility for them and being willing to remedy the situation.

Studies have shown, especially in the medical profession, that an apology and showing regard for the individual who is impacted by mistakes reduces the risk of malpractice claims.  

While most studies discuss litigation within the medical profession there are lessons we as practitioners can take away from this.  States are starting to adopt "Apology" Laws. So read more from the Sorry Works! Coalition site.  Would it be too much of a stretch to see this very 'human' concept applicable to the legal profession to help with grievances and malpractice claims?

But why wait for the profession to put it in place.  Have you considered creating an "Apology Law" practice within your own firm for client upsets both large and small, real and imagined?  Should the future find you embroiled in a situation, your office policies and an accounting of genuine remedial steps for a mistake may favorably impact the outcome of any grievance or malpractice claim as well as your reputation going forward. (Of course, if you are grieved or sued this should not take the place of seeking out legal advice from an attorney who handles such matters.)

Just typing out loud.

(And in case you didn't see, check out our recent faculty announcements at Solo Practice University.

If you enjoyed this post, why not subscribe to my RSS! If you would like to be part of a new educational and professional networking community for lawyers and law students why not subscribe to the RSS for Solo Practice University.

And you can always follow me on Twitter :-)

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8341c503a53ef0105365d8a82970b

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference How Saying "I'm Sorry" Can Help With Client Relations:

Comments

Brooks Schuelke

From my legal malpractice cases, I can assure you that this is very applicable in the attorney-client context. Having a good relationship with your client and willing to admit mistakes is one of the best ways to prevent claims and grievances. No matter what the context, people just don't want to sue people they like.

On the other hand, clients that have been lied to by previous attorneys are almost always chomping at the bit to sue; and once suit is filed, it's much more difficult to get these clients to consider reasonable settlement offers.

JPM

Watch that 'apology' get used against you later in court as an admission or statement against interest!!

Susan Cartier Liebel, Esq.

@Brooks - as a legal malpractice attorney experiencing the benefits of a genuine apology program for your clients and the impact later in litigation if it goes there, you can appreciate the court's reaction. But as @JPM evidences, the fear factor is so great it makes it a hard sell.

Again, I would never advise anyone to go down this path without advice, but why not get advice on how to proceed in general regarding 'apology laws' in your practice BEFORE you need it because it seems like a good practice to have in place.

Susan Cartier Liebel, Esq.

@Brooks - as a legal malpractice attorney experiencing the benefits of a genuine apology program for your clients and the impact later in litigation if it goes there, you can appreciate the court's reaction. But as @JPM evidences, the fear factor is so great it makes it a hard sell.

Again, I would never advise anyone to go down this path without advice, but why not get advice on how to proceed in general regarding 'apology laws' in your practice BEFORE you need it because it seems like a good practice to have in place.

Brooks Schuelke

At least in Texas, I believe that if a lawyer thinks she/he made an error, the lawyer has an obligation, as part of our fiduciary duties, to disclose the error to the client. If you have to disclose the error, why not apologize at the same time?

At the same time, even if that's not true, attys need to get over that fear. I can tell you from my experience and from reading countless studies in the med mal context, apologies (1) greatly reduce the risk that you'll get sued or be the victim of a grievance; and (2) if you are sued, then it will be much easier to settle than if you try to hide any malpractice.

And if you don't think you did anything wrong, then condition it, "look, I know you think I've made a mistake. I don't agree with that, but if I did, I'm sorry. I'm just doing my best to represent your interests."

And as Susan says, consult your own attorney before hand, but I am absolutely convinced that legal mal and med mal attorneys would be out of business if lawyers and docs learned to apologize.

Omar Ha-Redeye

In Ontario we have new legislation that would address liability for apologies. I've previously mentioned legal issues around Jet Blue, and companies should always seek counsel in their jurisdiction to review apology laws there.

David Perry

That`s the power of responsibility and taking ownership of your mistakes!

Craig Niedenthal

Agree that being upfront and honest with your clients, including not creating unrealistic expectations, is vitally important. Even in my dealings when I was at larger firms and was questioned about mistakes made on cases by more senior attorneys, I would never look for excuses. Just own up to and instead work on how to fix the mistakes. And yes, honesty and a simple apology can go a long way.

Gordon Firemark

I've long advocated taking personal responsibility for one's mistakes. Of course admitting you've made a mistake is often hard to do for yourself, much less for others, but I've always found that "I'm sorry... I'll do whatever I can to fix the situation" is appreciated and usually forgiven.

The real key is to make sure that mistakes are small in the scheme of things, and infrequent.

Of course, advice of counsel is a good idea before apologizing for malpractice types of mistakes.

Cranky Greg

I definitely agree that apologizing for mistakes is the way to go, even if you are admitting to some liability. If you mess up, own up to it. It will likely stop a bar complaint or a lawsuit. If you make a mistake and apologize, and are then sued anyway, you are going to look better in front of a jury. In my experience, juries are less harsh on defendants they like. So even if you are admitting to liability, you are likely reducing your damages. And forget the money and liability - won't you just feel better for getting it out there and apologizing?

The comments to this entry are closed.