Of the many changes in the legal profession in recent years, perhaps the most seismic shift has concerned our relationships with our clients. Clients no longer face limited options when choosing an attorney. Any client seeking legal representation these days can turn to Google, which gives them a staggering number of options. Lawyers are so numerous these days that clients can afford to be selective – and when you consider the number of law students and recent graduates, it’s clear that trend will only intensify in the near future.
As a result, the legal profession has experienced a commoditization of sorts. Legal services are now viewed by many clients as the same as other services, and they tend to approach finding representation just as they would looking for a good realtor. If that sounds far-fetched, contrast the expectations between visiting a doctor and visiting a lawyer. When visiting a physician, the patient is at the mercy of the doctor’s schedule and generally accepts the inevitability of delayed appointments. That’s not at all the case with law firms. Today’s clients feel empowered to express more autonomy and expect higher standards of service, and many will change attorneys at the first feeling of dissatisfaction. This naturally has driven an increase in competition between firms, who must now find new ways to differentiate themselves in a very crowded marketplace.
Yet the solution for distinguishing oneself as an attorney does not have to be complicated. It is, in fact, quite simple: a new direction that can help firms rise above the competition while improving the legal profession overall. Stellar customer service.
By exemplifying the best of client service, firms can accelerate their market visibility, please their clients, and drive referrals and repeat business. If you think that sounds too simple, remember this: poor client-attorney communication and substandard service are problems that have dogged the profession for decades.
Consider the following ways most law practices can improve their service, thereby accelerating their businesses as well.
No doubt every law firm believes they offer courteous service, but many clients would disagree. Consider how many lawyers share this experience: a client calls to find out her next court date but you’re tied up in court and can’t take her call. From there, perhaps you head to a deposition, then another meeting, with the result being that the client doesn’t receive a return call or answer until the following day.
Then there’s the matter of answering calls from prospective clients. Many clients make a list of lawyers they found on Google and begin dialing numbers until they speak with a live human — and that person becomes their attorney. Busy lawyers without support staff will innocently lose out on significant business, thanks to simply being busy and possibly understaffed.
There are basic standards of good customer service that time and again, harried attorneys fail to meet. You can leave your clients waiting in a reception area while you finish a call or you can greet them on time and offer them a beverage. It’s a small difference, but it tells new clients that they are valued and respected from the start. Think of it from your perspective; what kind of treatment would you like to receive upon walking into a restaurant, car dealership or Apple store? No doubt you’d like to receive exceptional attention that tells you the business genuinely cares about your satisfaction. Offer excellent customer service and your clients will know they are in the hands of world-class experts — security that is especially appealing to people who are confused and anxious over their legal case.
It used to be that attorney-client communication involved significant work, from multiple phone calls to mailing cumbersome documents. Even communicating something as simple as a new court date meant typing up a letter, printing and signing it, then getting it in the mail and verifying its receipt. In fact, these communication and administrative tasks have traditionally been so time-consuming that attorneys have often been forced to hire paralegals to handle it or reduce their caseloads while managing it themselves. Even when the communication using these antiquated methods was effective, it still posed a burden on law practices.
The good news is that today’s attorneys have technology to communicate swiftly and securely. Where many fall short nowadays, though, is in making the effort to communicate enough. Set aside a dedicated hour to make phone calls, instead of returning calls while driving from a meeting to the office, so clients have your full attention. Remember that their case might be their first experience with the legal system, so taking the time to explain basic processes and terms in order for them to understand every step of their case trajectory can go a long way. Clients may not even know enough to ask the right questions, which means that overcommunicating is always a smart idea. The amount of interaction will vary from case to case and by type of law, but the general rule of thumb is to make sure your clients feel informed and supported at all times. This isn’t just part of the rules of professional responsibility, it’s the baseline of a client-friendly practice.
This goes hand-in-hand with communication. A client who has put his legal matters in your hands is entrusting you with more than just a piece of business; this may well be a life-altering financial and lifestyle matter for him. To honor that trust, you must provide full transparency as a matter of course. Too many attorneys assume their clients only want to know major developments and omit details that their clients care about. By making all case developments available, the client has the power to choose whatever level of awareness he desires.
Ultimately it helps to think of your client as a collaborative partner who can assist you in achieving the best possible outcome in the case. Just as you would like your client to provide as much helpful information as possible for you, your client deserves visibility into all ongoing developments and decisions. Again, think of this partnership in terms of visiting your physician. Just as you’ll provide your doctor with detailed descriptions of your symptoms, you’ll probably be anxious to hear a test result or diagnosis as soon as possible. Provide that same transparency to your client.
Before software systems made case statuses available in the cloud, many clients wanted to hear from their lawyers every day, whether or not there was vital information to communicate. Simply hearing their attorney’s voice reassured them that they hadn’t been forgotten and were receiving dedicated legal service. Today’s software platforms make a new version of that possible; clients can log in to view their case developments around the clock.
But while that’s undeniably a positive thing, clients still want personal attention. Letting them know of their next court date is good, but reaching out to truly connect with them is exceptional. Be attentive and available, and you’ll build a client-attorney relationship that extends beyond this immediate case to their future legal needs. Again, remember that what may be viewed as business as usual to you can be a highly emotional and major life event for a client. By truly engaging with each person, you’ll earn trust as well as glowing referrals.
Even promising attorney-client relationships can go awry because of mismatched expectations. Let’s face it: we live in a world where Hollywood courtroom dramas and crime shows have created skewed ideas about everything from trial outcomes to DNA testing to settlements. A client inexperienced in the legal system will need you to set realistic expectations. That means not creating a sense of false hope when defending someone in court and explaining legal policies that may surprise a client.
Your relationships will also benefit by taking into account the differences between clients. When representing an organization that regularly uses lawyers, you’ll often find it has defined strategy policies on working with outside counsel. Everyday clients, on the other hand, will often require more education and hand-holding if they’ve never hired a lawyer. Remember that these clients often lack foresight into the processes and strategic decisions that can arise in a case; preparing them in advance can give them time to brace for all outcomes.
Clients today are much more likely to insist on having a say in their case decisions and direction. While this is understandable, good communication will go far in avoiding most disputes. Establish case objectives up front and thoroughly analyze the case before agreeing to pursue it. If you disagree on taking a case to trial, make the cost benefit of an early case resolution clear to your client, compared to the expense of a long trial and appeal. Always explain your reasoning when formulating a strategy and be sure the client understands the rationale for your decisions.
Ultimately you will benefit from drawing clear lines on authority. By identifying who is responsible for what, you’ll be able to avoid a significant number of attorney-client disputes. Generally speaking, attorneys have implied authority over legal and tactical matters, while the client has the right to make strategic decisions on factors such as expenses or calling witnesses. Rule 1.2 provides firm guidelines on who has the right to decide to settle cases, enter pleas, call witnesses, testify, and waive jury trials; communicate authority to your client and the beginning and there will be fewer surprises and disagreements.
The Latest Technology
One of the most advantageous recent developments in the legal field is availability of practice management software. With the right platform, attorneys can offer their clients a full-service digital resource that lets them pay bills, view their accounts, answer questions on court dates and case developments, and review documentation — all at their convenience. Secure emails can be sent, tracked and received from mobile devices and stored for future consultation; clients can also receive notifications to stay on top of important alerts and appointments.
This is especially appealing in our fast-paced world. Clients with unpredictable schedules will appreciate the round-the-clock availability of their case information; in our digital age, most people expect the convenience of online payments and accounting. Offering a tech-friendly practice suggests to clients that you have your finger on the pulse of our times and are likely to be on top of intelligent legal strategies as well.
While winning cases will indeed help build a positive reputation, providing stellar customer service is just as important in building a successful practice. Combine the best of legal representation with excellent personal service and you’ll make a name in your market as one of the most popular — and well-respected — attorneys in town.
Featured image: “Waiter holding empty silver tray over gray background” from Shutterstock.