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Client Communications

4 Tips to Help Junior Lawyers Effectively Communicate via Email With Clients

By Zana Tomich

A lawyer sets clients at ease by effectively communicating, which means client email that is prompt, informed, easy to read and proactive.

For most lawyers fresh out of law school, it’s going to be a bit before they’re arguing in a courtroom or negotiating in a boardroom on behalf of a client. But sooner rather than later, you will be communicating with clients. It’s critical that you learn to do so effectively.

Let’s dig into why client communication is so important, and tips for doing it well.

Pair Great Legal Service With Great Client Service

I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on this question: Knowing what I know now, what would I tell my former first-year lawyer self?

This question helps me stay in the right frame of mind to mentor and train less experienced lawyers and other professionals in my firm.

There are many things I’d tell myself if I had the chance. For one:

Before you become an expert in the practice of law, you can (and should) become an expert in client service.

As a junior lawyer, you’re not yet an expert practitioner. But that doesn’t mean you’re not an invaluable member of the team who can help more experienced lawyers serve clients well. In fact, there’s nothing stopping you from providing remarkable service to clients at any stage in your career.

Throughout my years practicing law, and especially since I co-founded a small law firm, I’ve learned how important it is to provide a great experience to clients. While many clients have trouble distinguishing between good and great legal work, all can appreciate the difference between a lawyer who promptly returns calls and one who doesn’t.

Ethics rules require reasonable communication to seek a client’s consent when necessary and keep them updated about a legal matter — that’s table stakes. The goal of client communication, however, shouldn’t be to merely prevent a malpractice claim (although robust communication does serve that purpose as well). Communication should be seen as integral to providing a great client experience.

A lawyer sets clients at ease and alleviates their stress by effectively communicating, which means communication that is prompt, informed, easy to read and proactive.

Let’s break that down in more detail.

4 Critical Components of Effective Client Email Communication

1. Slow Down

When it comes to writing emails to clients about important legal matters, the process should be slow and deliberate, not fast and furious. To avoid errors or misunderstandings that erode trust and take time to clean up, it’s important to think carefully and write clearly. Careful thinking and clear writing don’t happen when you’re rushing to get something off your plate and onto someone else’s. And don’t forget to take the time to proofread and edit. That “Please excuse typos this was sent from my iPhone” disclaimer doesn’t cut it with clients — or your colleagues.

2. Be Prompt

I know. I just told you to slow down when it comes to writing emails. At the same time, you can’t ignore your email for too long. Few things annoy a client more than feeling like they’re in the dark (see above regarding malpractice claims).

Respond to emails and voicemails within hours, not days. That doesn’t mean you need to provide an answer to every question within hours. But if it’s going to take some time to prepare a thorough response, it’s important to communicate when the client will hear from you.

One tactic you might consider to avoid spending all day playing digital ping-pong in your inbox is establishing dedicated time blocks for email throughout the day. You want to promptly respond to clients, but being responsive doesn’t mean responding immediately—as in, mere moments after you get pinged. You can go into your email every couple of hours and process what’s new and you’re still being prompt. And you also are giving yourself time to actually get work done.

3. Make It Easy to Read

What you communicate matters greatly. How you communicate it does, too.

Your clients are busy. They don’t want to wade through a dense email to find the answers they’re looking for. Avoid long blocks of text. Make your message easy to read by breaking up sections with bold headers. If you are describing three options for moving forward, list them out separately using bullet points. Keep it brief. Focus on both substance and structure.

4. Be Proactive

Communicate regularly when matters are pending and when new matters arise. Whether it’s active litigation or a contract negotiation, provide the client with unprompted and fully informed status updates regarding the matter. To go the extra mile, look for opportunities to send valuable communications to the client, such as relevant articles or industry updates, when there is no active matter. Of course, first check in with the lawyer who manages the client relationship before sending any email of this variety. But whether the email gets sent or not, you’ll impress your colleagues by being proactive and proposing ideas to add value to the client relationship.

Be Prompt, Informed, Easy to Read — and Proactive

A successful career in private practice is all about establishing and maintaining strong relationships with clients. Relationships flourish when there’s trust. Effective communication builds trust. Even if you’re just getting started in your legal career, it’s never too early to begin communicating with clients in a way that is prompt, informed, easy to read and proactive.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

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Zana Tomich Zana Tomich

Zana Tomich is co-founding partner of Dalton & Tomich, PLC based in Detroit, and provides outside general counsel services to privately held companies. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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