Succeeding in practice requires momentum, courage, and hard work. No one knows
that better than a solo practitioner or small firm lawyer.
Whether you’re starting out, retooling, or want to make a change, consider this sage advice from Ann Guinn, one of the presenters at the Oregon State Bar Solo & Small Firm Conference. She may just motivate you to get moving!
All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis
For related content with a greater focus on the financial side of practice see this post on Storify.
We communicate with clients along a continuum – using emails, texts, letters, phone calls, video conferences, and in-person meetings. When selecting a communication medium, what drives your choice?
When Your Convenience Determines How You Communicate
Choosing a communication medium that is most convenient for you is understandable. Odds are you’re busy, maybe overwhelmed. You have information to convey and want to pass it along to the client quickly and easily. More likely than not, you’ll fire off an email, maybe a text, or post a document and notify the client to login to your secure client portal.
This is perfectly fine if the information you have to convey is cut and dried: not controversial, unexpected, upsetting, or likely to provoke a series of questions.
For best results, prime clients at the first client meeting. Let them know to expect emails, texts, etc. when you have routine information to convey.
When Client Convenience Rules Communication
Some might argue this should be the gold standard 100% of the time: choose the communication method the client prefers or finds most convenient.
While I understand the spirit behind this point of view, it ignores some important realities. Consider this typical scenario: Client sends you a question by email or text, but is unclear in what she is asking or leaves out key details. In the name of letting the client control the means of communication, you can:
Begin an inefficient exchange of messages in an attempt to clarify the question.
Spend an inordinate amount of time “issue spotting,” then answer every conceivable variation of the client’s real question.
Have I made this mistake? Yes, indeed. But the goal here is to do better. Neither of these choices is a good way to go.
Client convenience/preference can rule when you have straightforward information to convey. [Spot a theme here?]
If the client is being murky, don’t text or email. Pick up the phone. You’ll get to bottom of the real question far more quickly. Send back a quick message: “Let me call you to discuss this. Is 2:00 p.m. a good time?”
Purposely Choosing a Communication Method that is Inconvenient for the Client
If we’re being truthful, most lawyers have done this at one time or the other. You leave a voicemail at home because you know the client is at work. You send an email late at night when the client is likely to be sleeping. You mail a letter instead of picking up the phone to talk.
If you occasionally choose a means of communication that avoids contact with your clients, don’t worry about it. You might legitimately go this route to simply get something done. [Your convenience is driving how you communicate.]
But if you find yourself avoiding clients (plural) repeatedly (chronically), stop and reflect. Most lawyers who choose an “avoidance” means of communication are doing it because:
They anticipate the client will be unhappy about whatever information it is they have to convey – or –
The client is already unhappy [which could be reasonable or unreasonable]
Chronic avoidance can become chronic procrastination, which is a no-win for everyone. Lawyers who repeatedly procrastinate are anxious, stressed, and sometimes depressed. They find it impossible to break the self-perpetuating cycle of avoidance: as clients become more and more unhappy because the lawyer isn’t communicating, the lawyer retreats even more – not checking email, not opening postal mail, allowing voicemail to fill up, not reading texts.
Talk about communication at your initial client meeting. Let the client know what to expect and set the tone.
My goal is to keep you informed at all times during your case. I will email (upload) routine updates and documents.
If you have a question, feel free to call (text, or email) me. I set aside (mornings) (afternoons) to return calls and messages.
If the answer to your question is complicated, or if I need more information to give you an answer, I may ask to set up a telephone or video conference.
I like to meet with clients in person to (talk about settlement offers, prepare for deposition, prepare for trial, etc.) If you want to meet in person, feel free to (call my assistant or me) any time to set up an appointment.
You are welcome to drop off documents (any time, after 1:00 p.m.). If you want to talk (leave me a note or speak to my assistant so we can schedule a time to meet).
Consider the information you need to convey and remember your goal in communicating: you’re trying to build and support a better client relationship.
Convey bad news in person, by video conference, or over the phone.
Discussing something complicated? Use the same approach.
Is your client prone to anxiety? Do you anticipate the client will have a host of questions? Ditto on the approach.
Potential Legal Malpractice
If you’re an Oregon lawyer, call the Professional Liability Fund at 1-800-452-1639 and ask to speak to an on-call claims attorney in any of the following circumstances:
You believe you committed malpractice
The client is threatening to sue or is asserting you malpracticed
“Soft Skills” are attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with others. They include traits like diplomacy, patience, empathy, problem solving, conflict resolution, adaptability, collaboration, and communication. Cultivating “soft skills” can improve your chances of getting a job or retaining clients:
A firm that respects client service will stay open. A firm that makes client service a priority will remain successful. How do we accomplish this? It should be innate, and yet, as mentioned, communication is still the number one complaint. Given that so many people have access to and contact with clients in a law firm on a daily basis, we must stop taking “soft skills” for granted, and start placing a higher value on teaching and attaining those skills. Marni Becker-Avin, Developing Lawyers’ “Soft Skills” – a Challenge for the New Era in Legal Services.
How Can You Cultivate Soft Skills
Soft skills can be improved through learning and by example:
Prefer books? I totally understand. A quick search on Amazon reveals many titles to choose from.
If you do better in a brick and mortar setting, look for leadership, communication, and conflict resolution classes at your local university or community college. [Don’t forget to check adult education course listings.]
Keep an eye out for pertinent continuing legal education (CLEs). The PLF has an oldie, but goodie: Building a Successful Practice through Improved Client Communication. From the landing page, select CLE > Past CLE.
Find a mentor. If you are a newer lawyer in Oregon, you are required to participate in the mentoring program as a condition of admission. However, your mandatory mentor may or may not be the best model for “soft skills.” Don’t hesitate to seek out a secondary mentor if needed. If your mentor sits in on client interviews, seek his or her feedback on your technique and style. [Be mindful of confidentiality issues and conflict screening.]
Technology has its good points. Mobile devices and apps give us 24/7 access to information and knowledge. “As long as we have the Internet, we can be productive,” or so we tell ourselves. But is it possible that tech is hurting our client relationships and we don’t even know it?
Your smartphone, smartwatch, and tablet are great gadgets – don’t get me wrong. The 2015 ABA Tech Survey reported that an astonishing 60% of lawyers use iPhones; 40% use iPads. Used consciously, as a tools, these devices serve us well. The danger arises when we fail to appreciate that their mere presence may be disturbing to our clients.
Don’t Put Your Phone on the Table During a Client Meeting
In 2012, researchers at Essex University conducted two studies to learn how the presence and use of a mobile phone affected social interactions among strangers. The participants were paired off and sat in private booths. In half the cases, a mobile phone was placed nearby. For the other half, a notebook was left in the same place instead of a mobile phone. The studies revealed:
If a mobile phone is visible during a conversation it causes people to feel less positive towards the person with whom they are chatting.
The presence of a mobile phone reduces the level of empathy and understanding in face-to-face conversations.
Mobile phones can have negative effects on closeness, connection, and conversation quality.
‘These results demonstrate that the presence of mobile phones can interfere with human relationships, an effect that is most clear when individuals are discussing personally meaningful topics,’ the researchers wrote. Credit to the Daily Mail.
All Client Meetings are ‘Personally Meaningful’ – Follow These Easy Fixes to Avoid Digital Distraction
The lesson here is obvious and easy: put your devices away!
Keep your phone in your pocket, purse, or briefcase during client meetings. If you are expecting an important call (from a Judge or hard-to-reach expert) tell the client before the meeting that you may need to take a call. But don’t use this as an excuse to keep your phone on your desk.
Not expecting a call? How about setting your iPhone to Airplane Mode, which will automatically silence your Apple watch?
Are you missing out on opportunities to grow your practice, improve client retention, or expand marketing? Before you rush to answer, “No, of course not!” take a little time to reflect….
First things first: What am I talking about and why should you care?
In this context, a “missed opportunity” is an opening where you could have done something, but didn’t. The “something” could be complicated and expensive, which is a justifiable reason to let the opportunity pass. But more often than not, the “something” is easy and free (or extremely low-cost).
Missing out on an opening to market to clients that costs nothing (or very little) and takes almost no effort is practically criminal. And with that statement, I’ve answered the second part of my second question: why you should care.
Simple, no-cost marketing opportunities
A simple, no-cost marketing opportunity is any opening where you can leverage existing client communication to your advantage. Consider these examples:
Better client closing letters
The typical closing or disengagement letter conveys fairly perfunctory information: “Dear Client, I’m done. Here’s my bill. I’m closing your file.”
If you don’t mind missing out on marketing opportunities, continue sending routine, mechanical closing letters. If you prefer to leverage this existing client communication to your advantage, do the following:
Take three extra minutes to humanize and personalize your closing letter. Show appreciation for something the client did or said during the case. “I know it was tedious to sift through all the pages of discovery we received, but finding (the smoking gun) completely changed the outcome of the case.” “I know listening to the testimony of (defendant) wasn’t easy by a long shot, but you kept your composure and it paid off.”
Close the door on the task at hand, but not on the client. Invite the client to call you ANY TIME he or she is in need of help. Even if it isn’t your area of expertise, you can be the conduit to other lawyers who can assist the client.
Consider enclosing a client satisfaction survey. More on this below.
Client satisfaction surveys
Are you meeting your clients’ needs? Or do you assume that client needs are met because you haven’t received any complaints lately?
If the latter is true, it’s time to screw up your courage and start sending out client surveys. A well-written client survey will quickly let you know what you’re doing right and what you need to improve. Send them with your closing letter, or shortly after.
TREAT clients well: before, during, and after representation
After slaving over emails, pleadings, contracts, and billings – the “tangibles” of your law practice – you may be surprised to learn that clients place higher value on timeliness, responsiveness, empathy, and assurance. This phenomenon is encapsulated in the TREAT approach to interacting with clients. Following the principles in TREAT costs you nothing, but makes a huge difference in how clients perceive you and your firm. Read about how to use TREAT before, during, and after representation in this post. [Online client intake can be managed with services like Lexicata.]
Thank clients for referrals
Nothing says “I take you for granted” more than failing to thank your client for a referral. In reverse order of preference:
An email or text is okay, but can come across as cold or aloof to some clients. Use this approach only when you know it fits within the client’s milieu.
A handwritten note or card is a nice touch that stands out – hard to imagine any client who wouldn’t appreciate it.
A call is even better. Over the phone the client can hear your tone and true appreciation for the referral. Use this chance to reconnect. “How are you? How is (spouse’s name)?” Yes, it is always possible the client may share news that isn’t 100% positive, but the point is to stay connected. You may learn that the client you were calling to thank also needs your help.
A call followed by a handwritten note may just be the one-two punch of all “thank yous.” Yes, it involves the most effort and also takes a bit of expense. Remember: the point here is to thank the person who thought enough of you to send a friend or family member your way. Keep that in mind when you choose how you’re going to communicate your thank you.
The list above is only a start. Look for other opportunities in everyday practice to build client relationships, improve client retention, and leverage marketing.