Last Call to Register for “7 Steps to Building Better Client Relationships”
Join me for a CLE on Wednesday, December 6, 2017 about how to cultivate your network, balance client expectations, proactively control social media content, meet client needs, and become more client-centric by exploring the 7 steps to building better client relationships:
Capturing better clients
Polishing communication skills
Advancing client service through technology and staff
Managing social media
Improving client satisfaction
Strengthening client retention
Topics include how to CYA the right way, how to say “no” gracefully, dos and don’ts when responding to negative online reviews, how to thank clients as part of your everyday, the simple six-step process to stay in touch, and why you should modernize fee arrangements and billing.
Wednesday, December 6, 2017 from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Pacific Time. This is a live, online webinar.
Who Should Attend?
Lawyers, office administrators, or staff – anyone interested in building better client relationships.
Discounts available to firms who wish to register 5 or more attendees. Contact organizer to arrange a discount code before registering: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Does the Program Include Written Materials?
Yes. Written materials are distributed electronically with your registration confirmation.
Ask Questions/Live Polling
Questions are welcome during the live event. Attendees are also encouraged to participate in live, anonymous polling.
$25 – Visit the Upcoming CLE page, click here, or choose the Register button below. Secure payment processing powered by Eventbrite. Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express accepted. Program materials included in the registration price.
1.50 practical skills pending.
Video and audio recordings of 7 Steps to Building Better Client Relationships will be available to download along with the program materials following the December 6 CLE. Price: $25. Contact me or visit my online CLE store after December 6.
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
The New Year is an opportunity to do things differently. Why not resolve to improve client management?
The first lesson in managing client expectations is that some folks should never become your clients. Become a “red flag” spotter. Screen potential new clients with these questions in mind:
Who referred the new client? The quality of the referral source can speak volumes (best client ever: you’ve got another winner; client from hell: run for the hills).
Are you taking the case because the new client is a friend or family member? If this is the only reason, it isn’t good enough.
Are you overlooking a potential conflict? Be especially wary when representing multiple clients, who are almost never equally situated (though they may argue with you).
Is the client lawyer shopping? If you are the third lawyer the client has consulted, one or more of the following is likely to be true: the client has no case or a bad case; the client is perpetually dissatisfied; the client doesn’t have any money; the client is purposely trying to conflict you out of representing the opposing party.
Does the client have a bad attitude toward lawyers or other professionals? Proceed cautiously if the client’s feelings seem disproportionate. A client who sees conspiracies around every corner can quickly become a nightmare for you.
Is the client pursuing the matter on principle without regard to cost? Unfortunately, proceeding on “principle” is sometimes a masquerade for vindictiveness or revenge. A client who seems to be pressing on this point a bit too much won’t be very amenable to settlement and may not be willing to cooperate on simple tasks like scheduling depositions or cooperating with discovery requests. This client’s motive is to push the other side’s buttons with the side effect of irritating you.
The second lesson in managing client expectations is to think about your practice from the client’s point of view. Perfectly good clients with decent cases can turn into clients from hell if they feel their expectations aren’t being met. Avoid this trap:
Be realistic about potential results. Depositions, discovery, and your own investigation may reveal that your client’s “perfect case” isn’t so perfect after all. It is better to be a bit conservative than to give clients false hope.
Provide accurate timelines. This is easier for transactional lawyers than litigators. Television and movies make it appear that conflicts can be resolved in one, two or three hours, leading clients to believe their case will be a sprint to the finish. Prepare your clients for a marathon.
Talk about fees and costs up front. Money will be on the client’s mind, so address it early. Whatever arrangement you make, be sure the client understands exactly what is required of them. If you bill hourly and provide the client with an estimate or budget, keep a close eye on the numbers. If it becomes obvious to you that the work can’t be finished for the specified amount, speak up right away. Always stick to your billing schedule and get invoices out on a timely basis so clients know where they stand financially.
Establish turnaround times for phone calls and emails. The best approach is to set aside a specific time of day to return calls and reply to messages. If your schedule allows, you can do this more than once per day. For example, upon arriving at the office, around lunch time, and again at the end of the day. If you are a busy trial lawyer running a solo practice, it may be more reasonable to inform clients that you will respond within 48 business hours to calls or emails. By letting clients know when to receive a response, you manage their expectation that all communications are “instant.”
Inform clients about extended absences. If a trial or other commitment is going to keep you out of the office for an extended period, change your outgoing voicemail message and consider sending an email blast so clients are prepared.
Use staff effectively. Some lawyers postpone hiring an assistant because they believe they can’t afford staff. In turn, these same lawyers spend valuable billable hours performing clerical tasks. Before you write off the idea of hiring someone, do the math. Odds are the billable time you recoup from delegating nonbillable tasks to a full or part-time staffer will more than pay for your employee. Staff can help you respond to the barrage of emails, phone calls, and client requests while keeping an eye on deadlines and getting work product out the door. Improving responsiveness and timeliness makes for happier clients.
Keep clients informed by transmitting all incoming and outgoing work product. Clients want tangible results, but we work in a business where there isn’t much to “show” that clients can put their hands on. Documents are an exception. Keep them flowing.
Review all open files at least once in any 30 day period. Your best option to is create a recurring task or reminder in your calendar or practice management software for each file. When a new file is opened, part of your file opening procedure should include setting a revolving reminder or tickler to review the new file. If you don’t have tickle dates for each of your existing files, generate a client list and begin scheduling recurring 30 day reminders for each file. Try to spread the file review process over the entire month so you aren’t overwhelmed on any one day. Creating a reminder or tickler system means you are less likely to forget about files. Use monthly reminders as a starting place for delegation and as a prompt to contact clients with a status report. When you stay on top of your files and provide regular status updates, clients feel like you are engaged, involved, and care about their case.
Engagement letters are an essential tool in the lawyer’s toolkit. Done correctly, they set the stage for the lawyer-client relationship, provide clarity, and minimize misunderstandings.
The best engagement letters follow a predictable formula:
A specific description of the legal problems the lawyer will handle
A specific description of the legal problems the lawyer will not handle
Steps the lawyer has taken already on the prospective client’s behalf
Steps the lawyer will take, once engaged
Steps the clients must take for engagement to commence
Future or ongoing client responsibilities
Combine Your Fee Agreement and Engagement Letter for Maximum Effect
Ideally, the terms of engagement are wrapped into the lawyer’s fee agreement. This simplifies the process – the client need only review a single document to know what the lawyer will do, how much it will cost, and what the client’s responsibilities are.
Create Templates for Efficiency
Practitioners can streamline the engagement process fairly easily. While some terms will vary, most of these letters contain enough boilerplate for a lawyer to benefit from creating forms or templates. [Rewriting an engagement letter/fee agreement for each client is a real time-waster.]
Don’t Fall Into the “One Size Fits All” Bucket
Some lawyers attempt to use their engagement letter as a one size fits all bucket. For inspiration, they look to every case where a transaction or engagement went awry and proceed to add disclaimers to ward off future problems. For example, lawyers who handle matters where property valuation is an issue may add language to the initial engagement letter forewarning the client of the need to obtain an appraisal.
How Could this be a Bad Thing?
Multiple disclaimers make for longer, more complicated engagement letters and fee agreements.
The longer and more complicated your letters are, the more likely the client will miss the key points: what you are going to do (or not do) and what it will cost.
In the end, it could all be for naught if the goal is to avoid a potential legal malpractice claim….
Which Approach is More Effective?
Lawyer 1 incorporates a disclaimer into his engagement letter forewarning the client: if property value becomes an issue in this case it will be client’s responsibility to obtain an appraisal. Without an appraisal, client assumes the risk of under (or over) valuing said property. Lawyer 1 proceeds with representation, relying on the disclaimer in his initial engagement letter.
Lawyer 2 limits her engagement letter to the usual points discussed at the beginning of this post. When the value of property becomes an issue in the case, lawyer informs the client of client’s responsibility to obtain an appraisal and the risks of failing to do so.
Keep it Contemporaneous
This is a no-brainer. Disclaimers given at the beginning of representation don’t have the same value as disclaimers given contemporaneously. Clients need context to make sense of your warning. At the beginning of the case, there is no context. Even if the client nods and understands, the disclaimer in your engagement letter will be long forgotten by the time the property issue arises.
A well-written engagement letter and fee agreement is all about balance. Include sufficient information about the scope of your work, division of responsibilities, and what your services will cost, but don’t fall into the trap of trying to disclaim or forewarn of everything that could ever go wrong. If helpful, consider developing a client handout that addresses common issues or questions that arise. Give specific disclaimers and warnings contemporaneously when the client can put the information into context.