Managing a Law Practice
They Had Relations: Five Tips for Better Client Communications
Other people talk about the classic maxim that people should “know, like and trust” you—or something like that—and that gets you business. I’ve heard it attributed to Dale Carnegie; and it must appear in some business book somewhere. I’ll be honest, though: I have no idea where it comes from. I don’t think I’ve ever read an entire business book in my life—unless you count Moby Dick as being “about” the business and science of whaling.
That’s probably exactly how it works, though: People have to get to know you before they like you; and they’ve got to like you before they can grow to trust you. But this is true of any of the relationships you’ll have, business or otherwise. Now, as a lawyer, your most important business relationships are those you maintain with your clients. But do you really maintain those? Do your clients know, like and trust you?
If you’re wavering on the answer to that last question, I have some suggestions for you respecting your client communications … if, that is, you know, like and trust me enough to listen to what I have to say.
1. What you’re doing now … about technology. You use a number of technology programs within your office; but damned if your clients have any idea what those are. For all they know, you’re rocking an astrolabe.
What you could be doing. Clients are more educated, and thus more empowered, than they’ve ever been. You know their files are theirs, and they have an inkling that that’s the case, too. You’ve read about data breach, and the business consequences of data loss. Your clients are aware of identity theft and are worried about the security of their personal information. Clients create, at least mentally, checkdown lists when they’re hiring lawyers. Increasingly, those include checks for the methods lawyers use to maintain and protect client files.
So, explain to your clients how you manage their information. Talk about the specific tools you use, and what those tools do. Tell clients you’re concerned about securing their data, and relay to them the ways you go about doing that. Go through the options you provide for accessing their data and collaborating with you. If they’re accessing data through your services, explain the importance of securing their own access portals, most effectively through the use of strong, privately held passwords.
With a twist. Kelsey & Trask provides iPads to interested clients as a primary means for accessing their case information.
2. What you’re doing now … about client files. You store your files for-ev-er, to the point where your clients think your middle names are Iron Mountain.
What you could be doing. Return your clients’ files to them at an appropriate time after the close of the representation—check your local ethics rules. And, if you must be a packrat (I know, I know—you never know when there will be an issue), then be a paperless packrat. Online storage options mean that you can create a virtual basement or garage for yourself full of old client matters—as long as you’re willing to pay out for that storage at increasing levels, as the years go on and the virtual redwelds pile up.
The best way to manage all this is to create, and stick to, a document management program. Acquire client sign-off on your document retention and disposition policy when you get the fee agreement executed.
With a twist. Return client files electronically. Save them to a branded (with your logo), encrypted thumbdrive, or let clients download the file from one of your branded collaboration portals. Otherwise, make yourself look good; you’ll want your hair to be nicely combed down when you make your appearance on “Hoarders.”
3. What you’re doing now … about client communications. You haven’t called your client in three years. When you do, she forgets there is a pending lawsuit and initially thinks you’re calling from Publisher’s Clearing House. She’s very disappointed.
What you could be doing. One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a lawyer is only talking to your clients when you need something from them, or when they call to yell at you. Set up a protocol to contact your clients on a recurring pattern, just to check in. Before you call, review the case status, so that you can provide a cogent update and answer any questions that may arise during the course of your conversation. A main ingredient of the vast majority of bar complaints circles around lawyers’ poor communication cycles with clients.
I often recommend contacting clients every six weeks. And, I think a phone call is most effective. People receive enough email these days.
With a twist. You don’t always have to talk shop. If you’re the type of lawyer who’s enough into marketing that you’re keeping notes about your clients beyond specific case matters, ask your client who coaches her daughter’s softball team about how the squad finished the year. If your clients feel that you care about them as people, they’re far more likely to like and trust you, and to remain loyal to you, too.
Of course, that all being said, make sure to review the client file before you initiate any call—case-specific questions are bound to come up.
4. What you’re doing now … about your team. You hire people to work with you—except your clients have no idea who they are or how many. You’ve never introduced your team. For all your clients know, your paralegal may be a horse.
What you could be doing. The first time you get your client into your office, introduce everybody. Relay the functions of your staff, and talk about the ways they’ll work on the client’s case. Let them interact as well; allow your clients the opportunity to understand the personalities of your staff. Make them understand that you operate as a team. This will also make it easier when your staff persons need to contact your clients. If you can reduce the “who” factor, you can increase the “we” factor.
Of course, this becomes substantially more difficult if you operate a virtual law firm, but it can be done. The mystical world of videoconferencing (heretofore only imagined in movies such as “Back to the Future II,” but now available to those outside of Hill Valley) solves much of the presence issue. Even so, just because you have a remote team, it does not preclude you from communicating to your clients (in a variety of ways, including via your website) how your team works together on cases. Check out what the experts, like Chad Burton and Stephanie Kimbro, do.
With a twist. In the office, equip each staff member with a different sort of candy. As you introduce your clients around, have your staff persons offer their wares. Know this: People love candy. And if you have decided to place Rolos at each station, know that I will be your client for life.
5. What you’re doing now … about referrals. At no point during your representation of your client do you ask said client for a referral, or a recommendation. When the representation ends, you do not include in your concluding letter a note respecting your willingness to receive referrals, or recommendations—in keeping with your prior conduct. Your client assumes you’re doing just fine, and probably now vacationing in Turks & Caicos, since her matter has finished. So she refers a friend with a lucrative claim to your colleague down the street.
What you could be doing. Gaining referrals amounts to this: Ask. If you’re not closing a successful representation with a request for referrals, you’re doing yourself a disservice. The most successful practices generate the bulk of their business through referrals. And your best source is your existing clients, because they already know, like and trust you—and they know and like the work you do. This makes sense from an efficiency perspective as well. Referrals are the easiest sort of marketing that you can do, because someone else is selling you, for you. You’ve already laid the groundwork.
If your state’s ethics rules allow you to post effective recommendations of your services, do it. Online buyers use recommendations as their chief criteria for purchasing. Think about the last time you booked a trip; a large part of determining which services you used was based on the ratings and recommendations at TripAdvisor, was it not? Your clients think the same way that you do.
With a twist. The trouble most folks have in putting together recommendations is that they don’t know what to say. So, the next time you’re seeking a recommendation from a former client, you should think about sending the potential recommender a template recommendation, or a sample of a helpful recommendation you’ve already received. Smart lawyers always start drafting from templates—so should their clients.
It Came from YouTube
Boy, I’ll tell you, a few weeks back, Son Volt released its new album, and now, my man Brad Paisley is out with his biannual release. And that, my friends, is how you know summer in an odd-numbered year is coming.
Jared Correia is Senior Law Practice Advisor at the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program. Prior to joining LOMAP, he was the Publications Attorney for the Massachusetts Bar Association. Before that, he worked as a private practice lawyer. Jared is the author of Twitter in One Hour for Lawyers. He writes on practice management topics for Attorney at Work here, and for the LOMAP blog here. Follow him on Twitter @jaredcorreia.