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ONE OF A KIND

Client Conversations: You’re Not Bugging Your Clients If You’re Providing Value

By Jay Harrington

Many lawyers struggle to find time for one-to-one client conversations outside of active matters or worry about being a nuisance. But when it comes to business development, nothing beats the power of live interaction.

lawyer client conversations

My wife often reminds me, after close to 25 years of marriage, how important it is to make time for one-on-one conversations, regular date nights and periodic weekend getaways to invest in our relationship. Otherwise, our days become filled with work, shuttling our kids to school and soccer practices, and discussions about family logistics, and our relationship gets neglected.

The same principle applies when it comes to existing client relationships.

Many lawyers fall into the trap of only communicating with clients when there’s an active matter, and even then, relying heavily on email and brief, matter-specific conversations. While these conversations are important, if that’s all you’re doing, then you’re missing a critical opportunity to deepen the relationship and uncover opportunities for more work.

Move Beyond the Matter

In the course of a typical lawyer-client relationship, most communication revolves around specific legal matters. You provide updates, the client asks questions, decisions are made, and the work moves forward. While important, these focused exchanges often don’t result in a deeper understanding of the client’s broader context and long-term objectives — in other words, the information you need to expand the client relationship.

To truly serve as a trusted advisor who is the “first phone call” for a client when new needs arise, try a different approach.

Proactively reach out on a regular cadence to discuss the client’s overall business strategy, industry trends, competitive landscape and personal goals. Gaining a more holistic view of the client’s situation puts you in a position to anticipate challenges, identify opportunities and offer proactive guidance.

As clients share their objectives and concerns, you can spot areas where your expertise could be helpful, even if it falls outside the scope of current matters. Often, in the midst of a conversation, the client will recognize a need for your services — many clients have issues that require legal assistance lingering on their to-do lists. By engaging clients in conversations that aren’t focused on current work, you position yourself for future work that hasn’t been outsourced yet.

The Power of Live Conversation

In today’s digital age, it’s easy to rely heavily — if not exclusively — on email and text messaging for client communication. While these tools are convenient and efficient, they aren’t the best for relationship building. They lack the personal touch and nuance of live conversation, making it difficult to establish rapport and trust.

Live conversations, whether in person or over the phone, offer a much richer opportunity for connection. The flow of conversation allows for more in-depth exploration of topics, real-time exchange of ideas, and the ability to pick up on subtle cues like tone of voice and body language.

Live conversations send a powerful message about the importance of the relationship.

Taking the time for a face-to-face meeting or having an unscheduled phone call demonstrates that your client is a priority and that you value their partnership. It shows you’re invested in understanding the client’s needs and providing personalized attention that’s not always billable.

Of course, email and texting still have their place in client communication. But when it comes to nurturing relationships, building trust and having meaningful conversations, nothing beats the power of live interaction.

Make Regular Client Conversations a Habit

Many lawyers struggle to find the time and motivation to reach out when there isn’t an active matter demanding attention. The key is to make these interactions a habit, just like any other important business development activity.

One effective strategy is to schedule relationship-building conversations in advance, at regular intervals throughout the year. For key clients, aim to have at least quarterly touchpoints, with a mix of in-person meetings and phone calls. At the beginning of each year (or quarter), review your client list and block out time on your calendar for these interactions. Over time, this approach will become second nature, and the benefits — both for your clients and your practice — will be significant. If you’re not top of mind to your clients, and building trust with them, you open the door to competitors who take a more proactive approach.

Key Objectives for Client Conversations

When engaging in relationship-focused client conversations, it’s important to engage in active listening and proactive value-sharing.

Active listening is about fully engaging with the client and seeking to understand their perspective. This means asking open-ended questions that encourage the client to share their thoughts, concerns and aspirations. Some examples:

  • “What are your top priorities for the business over the next year?”
  • “What keeps you up at night when you think about the future of your industry?”
  • “How has your role evolved, and what new challenges are you facing?”

As the client shares, practice attentive listening. Take notes to capture key details and use follow-up questions to clarify and dig deeper. The goal is to gain a comprehensive understanding of the client’s context and needs.

In addition to listening, proactively share insights and information that the client will find valuable. This could include:

  • Updates on relevant legal or regulatory changes.
  • Observations on industry trends and best practices.
  • Lessons learned from working with other clients facing similar challenges.
  • Recommendations for resources (books, articles, podcasts) on topics of interest to the client.

Another way to provide value is by making strategic introductions. As you gain a deeper understanding of the client’s needs and goals, look for opportunities to connect them with potential customers, partners or service providers — including your colleagues (these conversations are great for identifying cross-selling opportunities).

Making these connections not only helps the client but also strengthens your network, increasing the likelihood of generating reciprocal referrals and introductions.

Finally, while the primary focus should be on the client, don’t be afraid to share a bit about your own life and interests. Discussing hobbies, family or personal experiences helps build rapport and strengthens human connection. Just be sure to keep most of the conversation focused on the client.

The Benefits for Lawyers and Clients

Implementing a proactive, relationship-focused approach to client engagement offers significant benefits for yourself and your clients.

For clients, the most immediate benefit is feeling valued and appreciated. When you take the time to reach out, ask thoughtful questions and offer personalized insights, it sends a clear message that the client is important and their success is a top priority. This feeling of being seen and heard can be a powerful differentiator, particularly in an industry where many clients feel like just another case file.

For you, it’s an opportunity to gain a deeper, more nuanced understanding of your clients’ needs, challenges and objectives. This knowledge is invaluable for providing targeted, effective legal guidance. It allows you to anticipate issues, offer proactive solutions, and tailor your services to the client’s specific context.

Additionally, the insights gained from these conversations often reveal new opportunities for providing value. As clients share their objectives and concerns, you can identify areas where additional legal services may be needed, even if the client hasn’t explicitly requested them.

By consistently seeking ways to help clients succeed, lawyers can escape the trap of feeling like they are nagging or bothering clients for work. Instead, you can approach each interaction with confidence, knowing you have valuable insights and support to offer.

Client Relationships Are Everything in the Practice of Law

If you’ve been hesitating to reach out to clients outside of an active legal matter for fear of being a nuisance, remember: You are not bugging them if you’re providing value.

Start by identifying your key clients and scheduling regular check-ins. Come prepared with thoughtful questions and valuable insights. Listen attentively, follow up on key details, and always look for ways to help your clients succeed. Over time, these interactions will become second nature, and the rewards — for both you and your clients — will speak for themselves.

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Jay Harrington Jay Harrington

Jay Harrington is the owner of Harrington Communications, a leading thought-leadership PR and marketing agency that specializes in helping law firms and lawyers build awareness, influence and new business. Jay is the author of three books for lawyers on issues related to business and professional development, including “The Productivity Pivot,” “The Essential Associate” and “One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Practice.” He podcasts at The Thought Leadership Project and writes a weekly email newsletter. Previously, he practiced law at Skadden Arps and Foley & Lardner. Follow him @JayHarrington75.

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