Lawyer Websites: The good, the bad, and the ugly

What goes into a well-designed law firm website?  A photo of the city skyline? A copy of your latest legal brief?  Your phone number in 6 point font in the footer?  Probably not, and here’s why.

Don’t Be the Prototypical Lawyer Website

The best law firm websites have bold, modern, eye-catching designs.  Ditch the city skyline and leave the gavel and courthouse imagery behind.

Give Clients the Content They Want

Eighteen months have passed since The Rainmaker Blog published Legal Marketing Stats Lawyers Need to Know.  Remember what we learned:

  • 25% of people researching legal topics visit YouTube during the process.  Use video to answer the most common questions that arise during initial client intake.
  • Post substantive content, but not your latest legal brief.  The information you share should be understandable to a lay person.
  • Offer resources, including apps like Our Family Wizard, a shared parenting tool.

Clients Want to Talk to You – Now!

Clients are ready to act when they visit your site.  Don’t bury your phone number in teeny, tiny font in the footer of your website.  It should be prominent – above the fold, easy to find, and presented as a call-to-action.  74% of prospects beginning a search online end up contacting lawyer’s office via phone.

Offer Maps, Directions, Parking, and Transportation Links

Eighty-five percent of clients use online maps to find legal service locations.  Ask your web designer to add a Google Map with a marker to your website.  Offer directions and links to parking and other transportation options.  Include a photo of the outside of your building and surrounding businesses.  This will make your address easier to spot.

Other Important Tips

  • Get expert help with SEO – 62% of legal searches are non-branded (“Your city” “divorce attorney.”)
  • Mobile is increasingly important.  A Google Legal Services Study in 2013 found 69% use both a smartphone and a PC for research.  Ownership of mobile devices has grown exponentially in the last four years.  In 2015 a Pew report suggested that one in five Americans access the Internet only on their smartphones.  If your website isn’t mobile-friendly, you’re missing out.
  • Focus on local.  A FindLaw survey in 2014 found that 71% of people looking for lawyers think it is important to have a local attorney.  Clients don’t want to travel if they can avoid it; they may also assume local attorneys know the local judiciary better.  Whatever the case may be, follow these tips from Five Best Practices for Law Firm Websites.
  • Use Google analytics to learn everything you can about your web traffic: how you acquire visitors, how they behave once they land on your site, and how many you “convert.”  (A measurement of the latter would be how many visitors actually complete an online contact or intake form.)
  • As Lawyerist suggests, ban interstitial pop-ups.  They’re annoying (particularly on mobile) and likely to be blocked anyway by your potential client’s browser.
  • Do include proper attorney profiles.  Five Best Practices for Law Firm Websites suggests including practice areas, a unique differentiator, newsworthy legal issues you’ve resolved, and of course your experience and education.  What else can you include: how about community involvement? Interests? Hobbies? Something, anything that will personalize you a bit more.
  • Yes, you need a headshot and Five Best Practices for Law Firm Websites mentions this too.  Opinions abound about dos and don’ts, and if you’re like me you can usually pick the lawyers out of a headshot lineup.  Try Googling “modern headshot examples.”  Pinterest is a good resource.   Here are some suggestions from a digital photography school.
  • Incorporate social media and link to your blog.  These are pretty much no-brainers.
  • Consider online intake, contact forms, and online scheduling.  While most clients would rather call you, there is an audience who prefers web-based contact and online does have its advantages. If you use practice management software, intake may be built into your product.  Otherwise, look at Lexicata. Scheduling options include Setmore, FlexBooker, and TimeCenter among others.
  • Secure your site – for you and for your visitors. If you collect personally identifiable information, you must have compliant privacy policies.  (A simple contact form is enough to trigger this requirement.)

All Rights Reserved 2017 Beverly Michaelis

The Continuum of Client Communication

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.

Avoidance, much?

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.

If you see yourself going down this path, or if you are looking for resources and advice on how to communicate bad news to clients, help is only a phone call away.  Contact the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program.  Assistance is free, confidential, and non-judgmental. Outside Oregon? There are national hotlines and lawyer assistance programs in other states.

Communicating in a Way that Builds and Supports Client Relationships

At the risk of revealing my bias, this is the sweet spot where you should strive to be.  So before talking on the phone really does become a lost art, try to cultivate a “relationship” approach when you communicate.  Follow these guidelines:

  • 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
  • You are served with a summons and complaint

Firing a Troublesome Client

Sometimes the communication issue really boils down to the fact that you need to fire your client.  Read more about firing clients here.  Carefully review “Withdrawal from Litigation: Client Confidences,” OSB Formal Opinion 2011-185, Scott Morrill, Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: How to End a Relationship, Part II, and Helen Hierschbiel, Tying Up Loose Ends: How to End a Relationship.

[All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis]

Postscript

For another twist on the subject of client communication, see Linn Davis, Good Communications: Keeping Clients and Ethical Obligations Satisfied.

Digital Distraction: A Thief of Client Relationships?

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?

Worried about taking notes without your trusty laptop or tablet?   Don’t.  Turns out note taking is substantially more effective when done by hand, and your legal pad doesn’t need WiFi or an outlet.

Follow the Five Keys to a Successful Client Meeting

  • Avoid distractions (I think we covered this, but there is more to learn)
  • Prepare for your meeting
  • Create an agenda to stay on track
  • Anticipate and prepare for questions
  • Prepare a post-meeting summary and action list for the client

These excellent suggestions come from Tonya Pierce and appear on AgileLaw.  I highly recommend reading the original post.

[All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis]

 

 

 

 

 

Missed Opportunities

Are you missing out on opportunities to grow your practice, improve client retention, or expand marketing?  quoteBefore 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 very low-cost).

Missing out on a free or inexpensive marketing opportunity that takes minimal effort is practically criminal.  And with that statement, I’ve answered my other 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.
  • Cross-sell other areas of practice.
  • Ask for and invite referrals.
  • If you use eNewsletters or Constant Contact marketing add the client to your mailing list (or extend an invitation).  [For a comparison of email marketing services, see this review on attorneyatwork.]
  • Consider enclosing a client satisfaction survey.  More on this next.

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 thereafter.

For free resources and samples, see this post.

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 thank clients.

Parting thoughts

This is just a start.  Look for other opportunities in everyday practice to build client relationships, improve client retention, and leverage marketing.

[All Rights Reserved 2016 Beverly Michaelis]

 

The Importance of Staying in Touch

… [I]t is CAO staff’s continued impression that there is a significant failure on the part of many Oregon lawyers to adequately communicate with their clients. This information has again been provided to the bar’s CLE department anticipating that future CLE programs should be developed focusing on communication with clients and keeping clients satisfied. CAO staff also meets with local bar leaders to discuss this issue and educate bar members on this topic.   Annual Report, Oregon State Bar Client Assistance Office

No one can beat a faster path to the bar discipline office than a client who feels mistreated or ignored.

Don’t become a discipline statistic.  Make good client communication a habit by integrating it into your regular workflow:

Initial Client Intake

Your first meeting with the client sets the tone for the entire attorney-client relationship.  Take advantage of this golden opportunity!

Practice Tip:

  1. Use a client intake form that prompts you to discuss fees and billing.  See   Practice Aids and Forms > File Management.
  2. Develop standard fee agreements you can conform on the fly.  See Practice Aids and Forms > Engagement Letters.

Daily/Ongoing

  • Transmit almost everything you do or receive to your client.  Keep it simple by stamping client copies, “For Your Information Only – No Response Required.”  If you are paperless, create a fillable transmittal form, use e-mail, or post the document online via a secure client portal.
  • Follow up most office and telephone conferences with a letter or e-mail.
  • Return telephone calls and respond to e-mails.  If you have difficulty doing so on a timely basis, block out time on your calendar every day for these activities.
  • Let clients make the decisions.  Obtain express permission for:
    • Granting extensions of time to the adverse party
    • Stipulating to evidence or testimony
    • Suggesting settlement figures to the other side
    • Rejecting settlement offers
    • Settling cases
    • Agreeing to continuances
    • Concluding testimony in litigation matters

Monthly

  • Review client files at 30 day intervals based on the anniversary date of opening the file.  If you open a matter for Smith on June 20, schedule a reminder to review the Smith file on the twentieth day of every month:  July 20, August 20, and so on.  If you open a matter for Jones on July 1, schedule a reminder to review the Jones file on the first day of every month:  August 1, September 1, and so on.  Practice management programs make this process a breeze, but it can also be done in any calendaring program by setting a recurring event or task.  If you need assistance creating a system to remind you to pull client files, give me a call.
  • Send monthly status reports.  Some clients want to hear from their lawyer, even if no action is necessary.   Instead of writing a custom letter or e-mail, simplify the process with easy-to-complete Client Status Reports.  The status report should be sent in conjunction with your monthly file review.
  • Get bills out the door!  With rare exception, most fee agreements are crafted around the concept of clients receiving a monthly invoice.  Seems like a no-brainer, but a surprising number of attorneys have difficulty sticking to a regular billing schedule.  For assistance with effective billing systems, contact your friendly practice management advisor.  If you haven’t invested in time and billing/accounting software, there is no time like the present.

File Closing

When your work is done, don’t shove the client file in a box and forget about it.  Take the time to send a proper disengagement letter.  Return original client documents, render a final bill, and explain any remaining duties and obligations you or the client may have.  Be sure the client understands how long you will keep your file, and consider asking your client’s opinion of the service received.

To make this process easier, use a file closing checklist every time you close a file.  Sample disengagement letters and a sample file closing checklist are available on the Professional Liability Fund Web site.  Select Practice Aids and Forms > Disengagement Letters or Practice Aids and Forms > File Management for the file closing checklist.

Parting Thoughts

Poor client communications beget unhappy, irritated, frustrated clients who file bar complaints and legal malpractice claims.  By changing your habits and incorporating tools like client intake forms, standard fee agreements, nonengagement letters, transmittal forms, client status reports, and file closing checklists you can improve client relations exponentially with a minimum of effort.

 Copyright 2011 Beverly Michaelis