For lawyers, good client communications can make or break your reputation. Whether you’re taking on a new client, emailing or calling someone with an update, or sending out a bill, every time you communicate with your client you shape their idea of what it’s like working with your firm, and a positive experience can mean the difference between a new business referral and a poor review online.
Recommendations and reviews are important, since, according to the 2019 Legal Trends Report, 59% of consumers ask friends and family for recommendations when they’re looking to hire a lawyer.
However, many law firms don’t communicate with clients in the way that clients expect: For example, according to the 2018 Legal Trends Report, 55% of consumers want to learn about the legal aspects of a case in person, while only 2% of lawyers think this is the case.
For those willing to focus on overcoming this gap, there’s plenty of opportunity. Communicate with clients well and provide an excellent client experience, and your firm will stand out from the rest.
In this guide, you’ll find plenty of tips and tools to help you better communicate with clients and build a more efficient and profitable law firm.
Client communication best practices
For an experienced skier, the gentle slope of a bunny hill is no sweat. But for someone new on their skis, that gentle slope can feel like a steep, treacherous challenge, and it might elicit all sorts of fears and unexpected behaviors.
The same goes for legal cases: Lawyers deal with legal challenges every day, but their clients do not, and a little empathy goes a long way towards helping legal clients navigate unfamiliar situations—while keeping things running smoothly for everyone.
Here are a few best practices:
Communicate clearly, and often
It’s easy for things to get lost in translation, so making a deliberate effort to ensure your client understands what’s going on can go a long way towards avoiding unnecessary back-and-forth or misunderstandings.
Wherever possible, avoid legal jargon. Default to plain language instead, and leave an opening for your clients to ask questions about anything they don’t understand (a simple “please don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions” at the end of a lengthy email will do).
Also, communication means more than just providing regular updates on a case: It’s about being proactive so that clients feel truly informed and cared for. For example, get in the habit of answering your clients’ questions preemptively. After client calls or meetings, send a secure message that summarizes what was discussed and provides supplemental info for next steps.
Set expectations from the start
Setting clear expectations with your clients can help frame their experience and avoid disappointment. Specify in your engagement letters how often communications can be expected, what they will entail, and which channels you’re available on (phone, email, text, etc.).
It’s also worth laying out when you’ll be available: The 2018 Legal Trends Report found that 68% of clients expect their lawyers to be available outside of the office, and 59% expect them to be available outside of business hours, but 39% of lawyers say that working outside of business hours negatively affects their personal lives.
You’ll serve your clients best when you’re at your best, so setting availability expectations up front is key to ensuring you can care for yourself while meeting your clients’ needs. While there will always be those client calls that can’t be ignored, clearly setting communication expectations up front—and then exceeding those expectations—can go a long way.
Invest in developing your interpersonal skills
Contrary to popular belief, clients aren’t coming to you solely for your encyclopedic knowledge of the law. A little empathy can go a long way, particular in high-stress and emotionally volatile matters such as divorce, bankruptcy, or criminal defense.
A highly developed emotional intelligence (or EQ) can help you better read both your own and your clients’ emotional responses and adapt your behavior appropriately.
How can lawyers improve their emotional intelligence? Legal business coach Irene Leonard suggests four ways:
- Learn to recognize your own feelings by taking a step back from them. Observe an emotion and the reaction it produces within you. Practice identifying your emotions and their real causes. Anger, for example, may spring from frustration or self-doubt.
- Work on managing your feelings to avoid destructive communication. It’s important to know which feelings are appropriate to express in a particular situation, and which are better kept private and dealt with later. Learn to control your emotions, not suppress them.
- Realize that communication involves a lot more than what is said. Empathy can be developed through listening carefully and observing people’s body language and facial expressions.
- Deepen your connections with other people. Learn to empathize, to talk about your feelings, to listen patiently, and to calm yourself down before discussing a problem.
The service your law firm delivers is just as important as the legal results you provide. Your clients have legal needs, but they have emotional needs as well, and this is true for all practice areas. From family law to business law, your clients want to feel reassured that their legal needs are taken care of, and this comes down to good communication.
In other words, your ability to ensure your client feels heard, cared for, and enabled to make informed decisions has significant value, so it’s worth keeping your interpersonal skills sharp.
As a start, take extra care to watch for visual cues when communicating in person, stay present, and ask probing questions when you sense there’s more to the story.
Listen, listen, listen
Lawyers are paid to give advice, but often, what clients really need is for them to first listen. As Irene Leonard of Coaching for Change explains, it’s easy for lawyers to jump in and share their thoughts before they’ve truly understood the problem, which can leave clients feeling as if they’re not truly heard.
“Since lawyers are smart, we often anticipate what is going to be said, and don’t feel the need to listen carefully. But when we really listen to a client, we can hear levels of communication that may deepen our understanding of the client’s problem,” she says. “Be open to the possibility that you do not have a complete grasp on the problem before it’s been stated, that you do not know what the person is going to tell you.”
To improve one’s listening skills, Irene suggests avoiding interrupting or rehearsing answers while the client is talking, and instead attuning yourself to your clients’ emotions as they speak.
Active listening is also important. In an article on active listening from the Harvard Business Review entitled “What Great Listeners Actually Do.” The authors found that the best listeners do these four things:
- They ask questions. If you ask questions, your client will know that you’ve heard them, you understand them, and you’re asking for more information.
- They’re supportive. Each time you interact with your clients, make it a positive experience for them.
- They’re cooperative. Don’t be afraid to give feedback to your clients, but be sensitive with your delivery—your client should feel supported, not criticized. Also, don’t be afraid to accept feedback from your clients.
- They make suggestions. Good listening isn’t always associated with jumping in and solving a problem, but when delivered well, suggestions can be a sign of a good listener. In short, when it comes to client communications, delivery is king.
Do your best to follow these four points, and you’ll be well on your way to reaping the benefits of active listening for your firm.
Know when to automate communications (and when not to)
In the digital age, automating tedious or repetitive processes can be a big win for law firms. However, when it comes to communication, it’s important to be thoughtful and ensure that automated communication is convenient for both you and your client. In general, simple and transactional communications are fine to automate, but more personal and specific communications are best left to humans.
For example, it’s a good idea to automatically send out a new client welcome letter like Palace Law does to set expectations and let clients know how to access case information. However, if an anxious client calls or emails the office looking for reassurance or an update on their case, an automated response might not be well-received: A receptionist (or someone from a service like Ruby Receptionists) can provide an empathetic, timely response that can help calm your client’s nerves—even if they can only say you’re unavailable and will respond at a later time.
Finally, no one likes to hear bad news from a robot: As a rule of thumb, try your best to deliver bad news in person.
Know which channels to use
Depending on which area of law you practice in, and what types of cases you handle, different communication channels may be more or less appropriate for different situations. Consider whether it’s best to deliver news, answer questions, or provide an update via phone, email, letter, text, or another medium.
For example, when a client phones with a question, it may be more appropriate to email the answer so that the client has it in writing for easy reference, or to reassure the client over the phone and follow up with a brief note via email for posterity.
Also, consider what types of communication channels your client prefers—or has available to them. Some clients may prefer a quick text message to answer a question, but depending on your area of practice and your client’s situation, not all may have access to a computer or smartphone.
Of course, no matter which channel you use, ensure that it’s secure so that you’re keeping client information confidential.
Invest in client communication training
Sharpening interpersonal skills can be helpful for lawyers, but it’s also helpful for all law firm staff who interact with clients. Laying out best practices and guidelines for client communication and sharing them with new paralegals, administrative assistants, and associates can ensure your firm creates a good first impression on clients no matter who they meet with.
Client communications and ethics
Getting client communications right won’t just help you get more positive reviews and referrals: It’ll also help you stay compliant with ethics rules. Lawyers have a duty to communicate case updates to their clients in a timely manner, but as Megan Zavieh states, many ethics complaints start with clients feeling they are not receiving sufficient communication from their lawyer.
Use communication tools such as online portals to ensure clients are getting the updates they need, when they need them.
Additionally, lawyers have a duty to keep client information confidential, so it’s important that lawyers do their due diligence regarding any tools used at their firm: Ensure your communication channels are encrypted, and that you’re staying on top of standards for keeping client information confidential.
Finally, take care to follow ethics rules when communicating with clients or potential clients via social media: Don’t refer to yourself as an expert, be mindful of inadvertently creating lawyer-client relationships, and never share confidential information via a social media platform (see a more extensive list of social media do’s and don’ts here).
Keeping client communications secure
Keeping client information confidential is critical, and with the advent of GDPR, it’s become more important than ever for lawyers to educate themselves on best practices when it comes to technology. A few tips for keeping client information secure:
- Encrypt all communications and communication channels.
- Keep personal and professional accounts separate on social media.
- Be mindful when working in public areas (i.e., sit with your back to the wall in coffee shops and be extra careful in situations where others can see your screen).
- Ensure your clients and everyone at your firm use strong passwords to protect sensitive information.
- Consider using a secure client portal for extra peace of mind when sharing documents and other sensitive information.
Communication throughout the whole client journey
Your client begins their experience with you long before they sign their engagement agreement: It’s important to be conscious of how your firm communicates with clients throughout the whole client journey.
Ensure your website and marketing materials are clear and engaging, so that potential clients don’t get frustrated trying to find your contact information. Also, ensure your client intake is smooth and painless so that clients feel cared for right from the start.
At the end of your client’s journey, don’t forget that bills are a valuable communication tool: Add detailed notes so that your clients understand what they’re being billed for—especially if they haven’t worked with a lawyer before—and clearly illustrate services you’ve written off so that clients see the full extent of the value you’re providing, even if they’re not being charged for it.
Finally, don’t forget to ask for feedback from your client throughout their time with your firm. Chances are, no matter how well you’re doing in terms of client communication, there’s room for improvement—but you won’t know what to tweak unless you ask.
As a general rule of thumb, put your client at the center of everything, and you’ll be that much better positioned to communicate intentionally, provide great experiences, and build a strong reputation for your firm.
Tools for effective client communication
For today’s lawyer, there’s a digital smorgasbord of options when it comes to client communication. Here are just a few options to help you level-up client communication for your law firm:
Effective email communication can help law firms efficiently keep clients informed and up-to-date. As a bonus, tools like Clio’s Outlook 365 add-in and Gmail add-on make it easy to ensure all client communications are logged to the appropriate case.
Whichever provider you choose, ensure that your communications are encrypted and secure.
When you’re missing a receptionist and an automated email or out-of-office message won’t do, a receptionist service can help ensure that your clients are taken care of. Ruby Receptionists, for example, ensures all your business calls are answered, and it will sync all your calls and messages with Clio.
Client communications have evolved far beyond the formally written legal letter that’s photocopied in triplicate and sent via snail mail: Today, it’s not uncommon for lawyers to work with a client who prefers to text, so it’s worth getting educated on tools to help law firms meet this need efficiently.
Zipwhip, for example, allows you to send and receive messages from your firm’s existing business number. All communications can be logged in Clio, and there’s no need to give out your personal phone number.
To ensure client communications are completely protected, consider using a secure client portal to share information, send documents, and even invoice clients. Client portals give an extra layer of protection so that you can rest assured knowing everything is being kept confidential.
Client portals can also help make client communications more efficient. For example, Nicholas Hite of The Hite Law Group gives clients the option to use Clio Connect, a secure communication portal, so that they can access information related to their case on their own at any time. This helps clients feel empowered, and also cuts down on time-intensive back-and-forth communications.
Client intake and client relationship management tools
You don’t get a second chance at making a first impression, so it’s important to make sure your clients have a positive experience leading up to and during the intake process. Using a tool to help solidify your firm’s internal processes can also add a layer of polish and professionalism to client experiences from their point of view, making a big difference for your firm’s reputation.
Clio Grow is client intake software that makes it easy to keep track of potential clients through the entire client intake process and to create a simple onboarding experience. And, Clio Grow syncs seamlessly with Clio to give your firm a more streamlined workflow for client management.
Improve how your firm communicates with clients, and you’ll set yourself up to succeed long term. Better communication means better client experiences, leading to happy clients, positive reviews, and potential referrals for your law firm.
To recap, here are a few key points to keep in mind to ensure you’re communicating with your clients in the best way possible:
- Listen. Your clients are paying you for legal advice, but they’re also paying you for peace of mind. Be attentive, ask questions, and clearly communicate the work you’re doing, and your clients will see much more value in your services—making them much more likely to recommend you to others.
- Put security first. No matter how you communicate with your clients, it’s critical to ensure you’re doing it securely. Use strong passwords, be mindful of who can see your screen when sending emails in public, and encrypt, encrypt, encrypt.
- Take a client-centered approach. Clients are used to incredible service from the likes of Amazon and Netflix, but many law firms have yet to take the same client-centered approach. Keep your clients top-of-mind when considering how, when, and what to communicate, and you’ll be taking advantage of a big opportunity to help your firm stand out and become more profitable.
One final note: Don’t be afraid to use technology and think outside the box to improve your client communications. Take time to think about what your clients need and experiment with new tools and processes. It’ll make more of a difference than you’d expect, and you could see more success—and happier clients—than ever before.
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