Improving client communication improves every aspect of your law practice. Find out how to proactively manage client communication at each step throughout the client experience.
Sometimes lawyers communicate to be persuasive. Sometimes lawyers communicate to engage others in projects. Sometimes lawyers communicate to pass along and perhaps even translate important information.
Lawyers are always communicating with their clients. In fact, it’s difficult not to communicate. Sometimes, lawyers communicate more with a tone of voice, a facial expression, a body position, or a lack of contact than with the accompanying words and phrases. Clients often feel angry or anxious after not hearing from their lawyer for a period of time.
To inspire confidence and cooperation, you need to be intentional about how you communicate. Good communication happens when we are mindful of the self-messaging beneath our stress or any other emotion. Without awareness, these emotions tend to influence our thinking and behavior unconsciously. With awareness, we can surface and reframe these messages and adapt our communication so that the client “hears” what we intend. Frustration with a client that calls too often can lead to communication that lowers that inadvertently lowers that client’s trust and willingness to cooperate with you. If you skip critical communication during the intake and engagement process, the client may not be aware of your role and responsibilities and the client’s role and responsibilities.
Communication between two people is a two-way process of: (1) perception, (2) reflection or meaning-making, and (3) responding. Since people often start with very different perceptions of the same event, it’s no surprise that they often reach different conclusion about what it means and what to do. Every step in the communication cycle is vulnerable to deterioration from the previous step. Take steps to maintain the integrity of messages and good communication.
The Communication Cycle
Client communication is the most important tool to develop and maintain good relationships with clients, the people who may become repeat clients and substantial referral sources for your business. The client’s experience of working with you, as a lawyer, and their perception of you as a human being and professional result from your interactions and the experience you create, whether intentional of not.
Screening and Intake
When a potential client first first contacts you, use the screening and intake process to select your client as much as to allow the client to select you to be their lawyer. Ellen Freeman, puts it this way, “[a]s part of your interview process, you want to find out as much as possible about the quality of the client, in addition to the quality of the matterThis begins with your intake form and procedures.” Ellen has a list of reasons to turn down a client you can access here.
Have an intake form that gives you important information about how the client found you in addition to why they are contacting you now. The intake form memorializes the collection of important information, including that, which is necessary for conflict checking purposes. You may also want to develop potential client questionnaires for different matters. After collecting the information, conduct a conflict check and determine whether a conflict exists. If there is a conflict and it is waivable, have your client(s) consent, in writing. If there is not conflict, document your checking processes and outcome in the client’s file. Start with the LOMAP Sample Client Intake (Downloadable Form) rather than try to design an intake form from scratch.
Engagement, Non-engagement, Disengagement, and Fee Agreements
Once you’ve decided to represent a client, you must enter into a fee agreement as per the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct 1.5. The rules require written fee agreements in most cases, with very limited exceptions. If it is a matter taken on a contingent fee basis, see specific requirements and forms set out in Rule 1.5.
Use your fee agreement to clearly define the scope of your relationship with the client. Generally, you want a limited scope of engagement to limit future claims that you represented a party about an issue of which you are not even aware. The fee agreement is also an avenue to communicate with your client your fees, what you charge for, when you expect to be paid, whether interest will be charged for unpaid amounts due, and what will happen if the client continues to not pay. Speak with your client about how a retainer must be paid before you begin work on a project. If it’s a flat fee matter, try to collect at least a portion of it upfront. Review the fee agreement with the client and have an executed copy for both the client and for you.
The terms of the fee agreement are only a section of the information that should be included in the initial engagement letter to the client. Clear, written communication with clients, about the work you intend to perform and the fees you intend to charge, is as important as is clear communication to guide expectations for clients at the termination of an engagement and people, who you decide not to take on as clients. This is one of the best ways to avoid subsequent surprises to the client or you. In some instances, it is required and others it is simply a good idea.
The Client Relationship
Once you have taken on a client, they expect to be kept informed, even when there is no new information to share with them. We suggest that you return all calls and emails within 24 hours after they contact you. You should check-in with them at least every 6 weeks at the bare minimum. If you are unavailable, make sure that you use an out-of-office email notice reflects that. When clients’ expectations are met, it’s easier to manage the client relationship and give them a positive experience of working with you. You can find additional ideas for policies and information about telephone calls and emails here.
Clients do not think and feel about their matters the same way that lawyers do. This disconnect can be the root cause of many problems that are easily prevented. We recommend that you employ a policy of confirming all outcomes of meetings and telephone calls in writing to confirm your understanding and test for shared understanding for protection from a subsequent complaint from a client about not being properly informed about their case or matter.
Since the best clients become repeat clients and referrals sources, we suggest that you ask for feedback about the experience at the conclusion of a matter. It’s the best data about what you should do or change in the future. Also, most clients appreciate being asked at the conclusion of a matter for their opinion of the experience and whether anything could be improved.
The attorney-client relationship is something that the lawyer creates by managing every step of the client experience. Clients have expectations and our job as a lawyer is to understand, manage, and respond in an appropriate and timely fashion to address them. It’s all about good communication.