Lawyer-client relations are less about you knowing the answers and much more about you knowing the right questions to ask.
It’s one of the fundamentals they drummed into you in law school: It is your job to know the answers. That’s why clients seek your help, right? How you prove you are smart, and why they pay your bills? Well, yes and no. In many cases, it’s less about you knowing the answers and much more about you knowing the right questions to ask.
Lawyer-Client Relations: Socrates Was On to Something
Case in point: Your first meeting with a new client. There will never be a better or more important time to ask all sorts of questions. At this meeting, it should be your No. 1 priority to launch what you hope will be a long, productive relationship to achieve best lawyer-client relations, by learning all you can upfront. By asking good questions you will build trust, manage expectations, and clearly define the work to be done. Here are five really good ones.
1. Why did you come to me?
In Colorado, where I live, 632 people just passed the 2014 state bar exam. That brings us to a total of 21,726 active lawyers here. And this is one of those big square empty states. Just imagine how many lawyers a client can choose from in other places. In terms of marketing, then, you need to know how you attracted this client — so you can do more of it — and who to thank if the client was referred to you. Focusing back on building the relationship, the answer to this question will also give you insight into how this client thinks, where she goes for answers, and potentially, how she approaches problem-solving.
2. How will we know we’ve accomplished your goal?
It’s important to know what your client is trying to do. As you surely know, suing someone over a defaulted personal loan may be about getting the money back. But it is just as likely to be about “making my brother-in-law eat his words!” Get that out on the table right at the start, so you can decide whether or not you can deliver what this client wants. If “merely” getting the money returned isn’t going to please him, it’s time to decide whether you’re interested in being in the business of punishment — and whether it’s something you can provide, even if you want to. Then be clear with your client.
3. What worries you most about this matter?
The answer to this will tell you so much about the person you are dealing with, as well as the dynamics you should expect. If the answer is something like “that your services will be too expensive,” or “that I don’t know what this is going to cost,” you’ve been put on notice to over-communicate about money. If the client’s biggest worry is something like “that I’ll go through all this and still lose,” then it’s time for a conversation about the quality of the case and what you see as her chances of winning. If the worry is “that I’ll look stupid,” you’ve again received some great information about how to communicate during the course of this matter.
4. Have you ever worked with a lawyer before?
If this is his first time, you will know to be gentle. More than that, you will know that you must guide this client through the experience, to serve as the host or narrator so it’s always clear what is going on. Review how things like this usually go and be specific about what will be expected of him, how much time will be involved and where decision points will occur. If this isn’t the client’s first time at the lawyer rodeo? Your next question should be along the lines of: “What have you disliked about working with a lawyer in the past — and what can we do to avoid that?”
5. How would you like me to communicate with you?
Depending on the focus of your practice, one-size-fits-all communication with your clients may not be a good idea. If you have any room at all for flexibility, it will improve the experience for clients and you if you can tailor how you communicate to meet the client’s needs and preferences. (Give it a good hard think. You may have more flexibility here than you know.) Email, voice mail, text, letter, memo … there are many ways to convey what needs to be shared. Frequency is also an issue: Weekly, daily, monthly, as needed? Some corporate counsel wants to be copied on every single scrap of communication with absolutely anyone. Others say, “I wouldn’t be paying your rate if I didn’t trust you to act on my behalf.”
Merrilyn Astin Tarlton is Partner/Catalyst at Attorney at Work, a founding member of the Legal Marketing Association, an LMA Hall of Fame inductee, and a Fellow and past President of the College of Law Practice Management. Follow her on Twitter @AstinTarlton.