Look Me in the Eye

Lawyers in increasing numbers are embracing technology to make their practices more efficient, to respond to consumer demand to keep fees lower, and (we hope) to increase access to justice. That’s great, right? Isn’t that what we’ve been encouraging lawyers to do? Absolutely.

From the lawyers’ perspective, we are moving in the right and necessary direction. We are fighting to stay relevant in this new DIY legal environment. We are automating processes, linking systems that formerly didn’t communicate, and using technology to its best effect. We email, we use client portals, some of us text; we have client relationship management software; we use email and text reminders to keep our clients on schedule.

But much like work-life balance, another topic of frequent discussion, shouldn’t we take a hard look at creating a balance between the growing efficiencies enabled by technology, and the personal touch that allows us to build the kind of relationships with clients that distinguishes us from the DIY products on the market? Will technology alone let clients know we support them, that we understand their anguish, and that they are important to us? Will it promote loyalty, appreciation and future referrals?

Lawyers are educated, intelligent and knowledgeable. We practice a learned profession and we have specialized knowledge. But are we forgetting the human touch—the kind of communication that clients hope for and expect? Is the increasing use of technology in the practice of law creating distance between lawyers and clients in a way that impedes our ability to connect in a positive way?

Meaningful communication

Please pardon this statement of what should be obvious: Clients are human beings, who like the vast majority of humans, crave communication and reassurance. To put a finer point on it, clients want communication, reassurance, and validation from us, their lawyers. They want to feel that they are important to us; after all, they are trusting us with confidential information they may not tell anyone else, information that may be embarrassing, and really, many times with their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. So, while frequent electronic communication may be part of the solution, it isn’t the whole solution.

Think of your own relationships with the professionals on whom you rely on in your personal life, particularly in times of crisis or stress. What’s better? An email or a phone call? A phone call or an in-person meeting? Who are you more likely to trust, a voice on the phone or the person who looks you in the eye and actively listens to you? The more personal and focused the contact, the more satisfying it is, and the more valued and supported we feel.

It’s also good business

Marketing and business development advisors, as well as the “old-time” lawyers who built their small firms into large or mega-firms, agree—clients hire and refer business to lawyers they know, like and respect. Of course, results and professionalism matter; but think about the last time someone you know seeking legal help asked you for a referral. Who did you think of? Unless it was someone in your firm, it’s likely that the first names you thought of were people you’d met in some professional networking venue, or are in an affinity bar with, or know from law school—all people you know personally, like and respect. That kind of relationship is not built on the efficient use of technology—it’s built on interpersonal relationships.

Balancing technology and the human touch

This is the hard part because there is no one right way to do this. The balance you achieve will likely depend on your practice area, and the specifics of how you implement this may be dictated by your own personal style. Of course, you could take the direct approach, and ask your clients what is important to them; or you could ask your clients for ratings—perhaps through a survey. Check your online reviews and read all of them. We want to know what we did right, but the negative ones may give you input into what you might have done differently or better. But if that doesn’t give you an idea of where to start, here are some suggestions to guide you to strategically providing the one-to-one contact clients will appreciate.

  • Make your initial one-on-one contact count. Perhaps you use client relationship management software for intake and for the formalities the come with beginning a representation. That is certainly fine. Keep in mind, though, that your only personal contact with a client should not be solely centered around fees or getting paid. If or when you are meeting with your clients or prospective clients in person, focus on them. Don’t check your phone, don’t take other calls, focus on the client and what they are telling you. Make eye contact; don’t think about your next appointment, what you must do later, or your next vacation. Nothing is worse than sitting across from someone and being able to tell that they are tuned into something other than your conversation.

Remember, these are people in crisis, and they think about their problems all the time—it plagues them. They want to know that you feel their pain and understand their angst and are there to support them.

  • Do unto others. How would you want your parent, favorite aunt, brother or child to be treated by their lawyer? Let that be your guide in how to communicate with your client. If your mother came to you and said that her lawyer might as well be a computer because all communication is formulaic and electronic, what would be your reaction? If the only communication your beloved relative received from their lawyer was an email inviting them to view a document in the client portal, or a PDF of a document attached to an email, you’d likely consider that off-putting. Where’s the sympathetic or empathetic ear? Where is the personal attention that is the value-added proposition that makes it worth paying a lawyer?
  • Schedule time to meet intermittently, but regularly, during the representation. It is so easy for clients to barrage you with single questions, comments, requests via email, texts or voice-mail. Some of those inquiries will certainly and appropriately be answered in kind, with emails or voice-mails. To provide more personal interaction schedule time weekly, bi-weekly or monthly to have dedicated contact with your client. The frequency of those meetings and how you meet will depend on the nature of the case and practical logistics.

If you are thinking that you don’t have time for that, remember, your effective use of technology to streamline the administrative or repetitive tasks in your practice will free up time for these meetings. This kind of scheduling will have a positive effect—your client may be less prone to bombard you with single questions and they will know that they are important enough for you to set aside a specific dedicated time for them. It doesn’t have to be hours or even one hour—it can be 15 minutes—but it’s their time.

  • Use technology to help you be more personable. What do we appreciate or admire about other professionals we deal with? This question does not refer to the skill/ability we are paying for—this refers to the small “soft” details. For instance, does your doctor remember details you’ve discussed that are not directly related to your medical condition? How many children you have; that one is graduating; that you are married; maybe your spouse’s name. The small details that let you know they see you as a person, not just a diagnosis. Why would we think this would be any different for legal clients? Use your technology to record those details, remind you to acknowledge positive events, celebrate landmarks.
  • Be honest at the outset. Don’t promise 24/7 access to your clients unless you really have no life, no other clients and no desire to have either. This isn’t about wellness, although setting realistic limits on your workday will promote wellness. This is about being considered trustworthy and reliable by your clients. For example, if you are a solo practitioner and you must be in court most days, don’t tell your clients that they can reach you at any time. Explain that you may be away from the office for large chunks of the day, but that you will return calls as promptly as possible—or during certain hours of the day—and then do what you’ve promised. Is it a surprise that clients who complain about their lawyers most frequently note a lack of communication?
  • A spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down. Receiving bad news is never easy, nor is conveying it. Lawyers are human too, and we don’t like giving clients bad news. But giving them bad news in person, where they can see our faces, and hear the understanding in our voices that this is hard for them is far better than sending it by email. Even if the best you can do is a phone call, it is better than a letter, no matter how compassionately it is worded.

Technology is essential for a modern, thriving practice. Technology is, however, no substitute for one-on-one, personal communication between lawyer and client. Lawyers have many more ways they can, and should, create client-centered communication that will be satisfying to both parties in the professional relationship. Those discussed above are just the first step. Technology is the tool that will help you make the time to communicate with your client in a way that makes them feel supported, appreciated and valued—and they will reciprocate with loyalty, respect, and referrals.

About the Author

Roberta Tepper is the lawyer assistance programs director for the State Bar of Arizona. She advises lawyers on practice management, law-related technology, and starting, growing and winding down their practices, serves on the TECHSHOW Board and Law Practice Division Council. Follow Roberta @AZPractice20 and on www.ReadySetPracticeAZ.com or contact her at Roberta.Tepper@staff.azbar.org or Practice20@staff.azbar.org.

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