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The Friday Five

Five Ways to Know What’s Up with Clients and Staff

By Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

The first Sunday New York Times Magazine after the 2017 presidential inauguration featured a cover story titled “To Obama With Love, and Hate, and Desperation” by Jeanne Marie Laskas. It is an excellent article and, regardless of your political leanings, I recommend it to you.

It tells the story of the 50 staff members, interns and many volunteers in the White House mailroom charged with reading every single letter and email delivered to the Office of Presidential Correspondence during Barack Obama’s time in office. Their goal? To each day select 10 letters to place at the back of that evening’s briefing book for the president — so he could “sample” the unfiltered story of the nation.

Every leader needs feedback. (Some need a little too much!) But, truly, how can you do your job without understanding what’s going on in the lives of those impacted by your work? In the case of a lawyer, I’m thinking, of course, of your clients. But the lives, moods and opinions of your staff and colleagues count just as much.

“Big Data” Be Damned!

Sure, gathering oceans of information into a single succinct chart or graph can ease comprehension in the aggregate. But if the leader of the free world found it just as important to hear stories from the real lives of those around him, maybe you should, too.

So here are five ways to stay in touch with what’s going on with your clients, colleagues and staff. But, most of all, just make it your M.O.!

  1. Ask. Inside your firm, start with a coffee meeting to explain a new resolve to stay more personally in touch this year. Encourage people to talk with you personally if they have questions or problems — or send you a note or email if they feel shy. (Promise confidentiality if they wish, and deliver it, too!) For clients, finish every gig with a request for ongoing feedback. Be clear that you will make the time for their input — then make sure you do exactly that. Randomly select a few clients each month to share lunch with — and don’t make it about business development, it’s just staying in touch. Make sure that agenda is clear. 
  1. Tell. Let the people around you know what is going on in your life — at home and at work. New client? Explain who it is and how and why they have engaged you. New baby? Share your photos and lack of sleep. Don’t be afraid to express it if you’re feeling tired or stressed; people like to know you are human, too. And when you need help, ask for it. Sometimes that is the most flattering thing you can do.
  1. Organize. There are any number of ways to get official or institutional about the telling of stories and sharing of information. A suggestion box, perhaps? For clients, include a stamped, addressed blank postcard in the end-of-matter packet each one receives, asking for debriefing thoughts. Institute a routine all-hands celebration at the successful close of a client matter. Someone’s birthday? Gather around the cake and ask for stories of birthdays gone by.
  1. Share. If you receive a particularly interesting note (good or bad!) from a client, make sure you share it with all involved. Yes, with your assistant as well as the senior partner. It’s a great way to learn how things look from the other side of the desk, to know how to handle a similar matter next time, and to identify systems or technology bugs that need sorted out.
  1. Allow anonymity. It’s only fair, if you plan to share information or a story from someone, that you get their permission first or remove their name. It’s their story to tell. This is even especially true as it applies to sharing client stories or quotes on your website.

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Merrilyn Astin Tarlton Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

Merrilyn is the author of “Getting Clients: For Lawyers Starting Out or Starting Over.” She has been helping lawyers and law firms think differently about the business of practicing law since 1984. She is a founding member of the Legal Marketing Association, an LMA Hall of Fame inductee, and a past President of the College of Law Practice Management. Merrilyn was a founding partner of Attorney at Work. 

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