In my experience, the best defense usually prevails over the best offense. The Seattle Seahawks, ostensibly the better defender, prevailed over the Denver Broncos, ostensibly the better offense, in the recent Super Bowl by bringing its best defensive skills into play.
However, the playing field is different in the practice of law. Unlike football players, lawyers need to be offensive, not defensive. In this case, offensive doesn’t mean hurting someone’s feelings, which is never a good thing to do in the business of law. Rather, offensive means being proactive.
In particular, lawyers must be proactive to develop effective client relations, which will always win the day. Effective client relations will create loyal clients who will sing your praises far and wide. What are some of the best practices that you might consider?
Manage Client Expectations
From the very first intake session throughout your entire representation of the client, manage client expectations. “Underpromise and overdeliver” is a popular and apt saying in the sales world. While you need to say enough to convince the client to engage you, do not overpromise; this will only cause you trouble when the expectations of the client are not met.
Understand the Nature of the Matter
During the intake session, be sure to extract all of the information you can to understand the exact nature of the matter. During this time, be sure that you understand what the client wants, not just what the client needs.
Prepare a Budget
At some point during the first 30 to 60 days of engagement, be sure to prepare a budget of time, costs, and fees. Review this with and obtain the input of the client, and have the client initial the budget. Preparing the budget with the client involves the client and makes the client part of the team. When that occurs, even if something goes awry, it is very difficult for the client to be critical or place blame at your feet.
Communicate Your Payment Expectations
Low realization results from not telling clients at the beginning of an engagement what is expected of them and from failure to follow through with the consequences of their failure to pay, consequences that you have discussed with them in your very first meeting.
When this happens, it is because firms have failed to establish, explain, and enforce an effective written collection policy. Such a collection policy should cover everything from the beginning of the relationship with the client to the payment of the final bill to alternatives for handling a fee dispute.
Because the collection policy is the foundation for all future fee and collection considerations, be as detailed as possible in the terms spelled out in a written fee agreement. Typically, a written fee agreement is required for contingency work but not for hourly or transactional work, though states increasingly require all agreements to be in writing.
Develop a Team Approach
Discuss the concept of a team approach to addressing the challenges faced by the client. Tell the client that he/she is an essential ingredient to the success of the engagement. That means that the client must respond to your requests for further information in a timely fashion; return your phone calls promptly; tell the truth so that surprises are minimized; and, of course, pay his/her bills in accordance with the engagement agreement.
Always be responsive to your clients. Do not fail to return phone calls and respond to letters or faxes. No matter how valid your reason, including being in court, it’s not a good excuse. Clients want to be assured that their matter is being dealt with. They don’t want to feel ignored. If you are unable to respond personally, have a secretary, paralegal, or other lawyer ready to step in and say that you are presently unavailable and will return the call or letter by a certain time or date.
Visit the Client
What could be more natural than dropping in on a friend? What could be more effective than for lawyers to pay a visit to their best clients? Far too often, lawyers are apprehensive about making such visits, but they should be reminded that clients will not be hostile or confrontational; otherwise, they would not have remained clients.
What clients want is to feel comfortable with their lawyer. The best way to make them comfortable is to get them to talk about their business. A client visit should focus on listening to what clients have to say.
Ask for Feedback
Not enough law firms ask their clients, “How are we doing?” As a result, many lawyers unfortunately never figure out that their client is unhappy. If they do not hear from a client after completing a matter, they just think that the client has no additional legal work. They do not realize that the client was so unhappy that, although he did not complain, he will not return.
In a column that I wrote several years ago, I noted that sending simple, regular status reports can do much to communicate with clients and show what you are doing for them. Status reports can reveal problems that arise when the client does not understand what you have accomplished and refuses to pay the bill when it comes due. I offered to share such a form with those readers who e-mailed me, and the response was significant. However, this did not truly indicate a desire for full communication, because status reports only convey information from the lawyer to the client.
Far more important to maintaining the lawyer-client relationship is finding out what clients think. For years, the main tool for doing this has been one that many lawyers dread: a written client survey form. Most lawyers are reluctant to ask the questions. They are afraid of the answers. But what better result could you get than to be told that you can correct something—and strengthen the relationship when you do? The client feels appreciated and heard, and recognizes that you care enough to ask and to make a change.
Too often, marketing gurus suggest that written surveys be sent in the mail after a matter or litigation is concluded. I suggest that this is the wrong time. No matter what you learn from the responses (and typically few clients respond, not even a statistically valid amount), it is after the fact; you will not be able to salvage that client relationship if there is real dissatisfaction. A far better strategy is to send a short survey with the first billing. If anything is wrong, it is best to know at the beginning of the relationship when you have time to correct any deficiency.
In larger firms, experience suggests that it is very beneficial for the managing partner to periodically visit the top 10 clients of the firm for an informal oral survey. Even when I was in industry, the fact that I, as a CEO, cared enough to visit a customer had a dramatic impact on our relationship and the buyer’s/customer’s goodwill toward us.
Such a visit does not have to be an elaborate production. Simply meet clients over coffee and ask, “How am I doing? Should I be doing something differently? Is there an issue that concerns you? Does my staff treat you courteously?” Given this opportunity, clients will provide you with honest answers. And if there’s a problem, it is better to know before there is an unpaid bill.
If clients do not believe that a firm is serving their best interests, they will take their business elsewhere. This is particularly true in today’s recession/depression. Proactive communication with a client can prevent the dreaded “cut your fee, or I’m gone” message that far too many firms receive.
Ed Poll is a lawyer and the principal of LawBiz Management Company, a law firm management consulting firm. He can be reached at (310) 827-5415.