From the Chair

With this issue of Law Practice Today, our attention is turned to one of the four core areas of the ABA Law Practice Division—marketing. Marketing in the practice of law is nothing new. Exactly a half millennium ago, Sir Thomas More is attributed with the 1516 quote: “A man of law that never saw the ways to buy and sell, weening to rise by merchandise, I pray God speed him well.”

Today’s legal market is intensely competitive, and with that reality, buying and selling of legal services and marketing of such services has become more important than any time in the past. One key facet in law practice marketing is distinguishing yourself from other practitioners. Many methods and means are available to market one’s practice, but the bottom line is that marketing starts with you and your relationship with your client.

Often I tell clients, “98% of the problems today are due to lack of effective communication.” Too often, as lawyers, we do not take the time to understand and effectively manage client expectations at every turn of the engagement.

I have several tips for better communication with clients that I share with our associates. These tips are based on years of practice and interaction with clients:

  1. Understand your client and their expectations up front. Before meeting with the client, find out about them and their organization. Have they been in the news? What are the issues that are keeping them up at night? At your first meeting, determine what it is that they want to achieve, what would make them happy, what do they need from you, by when, in what format, what’s their budget, and how would they like to communicate with the firm moving forward?
  1. Client selection. A key to a profitable law practice is client selection. Too often new attorneys feel compelled to accept every new matter, even though their core competency is not in the area in which the client needs help. Have you identified your core competency? Is this a matter the firm wants to handle? Is this a client with whom the firm wants to establish a relationship? Are you the second or third attorney that this client has consulted? Do they have unreasonable expectations of how long this matter will take or its cost? Are they willing to pay a sufficient retainer, or are they arguing about your fees before you began? Client selection is an important facet to marketing your firm’s services.
  1. Set out timeline and benchmarks. Establish timelines for the new matter and build in time to allow for “unanticipated circumstances.” If at any point you are unable to deliver on the original deadlines, manage your client’s expectations early – ideally as soon as you become aware of the issue. As the founder of Holiday Inns said, “The best surprise is no surprise!”
  1. Provide an engagement letter. Set out the scope of the engagement and the associated professional fees and costs up front. This will save many a misunderstanding between the client and the firm. Also outline for the client who the responsible attorney will be on the matter and their contact details. With those contact details, it is also important to note how soon they can expect a response to a phone call or e-mail.
  1. Internal communication. Inform your own team of the client’s expectations and what you as the responsible attorney expect from them. This includes not only attorneys, but staff that may be working as a member of the client team. How will work the client team work together for the client’s benefit?
  1. Bad news does not get better with time. When issues arise, immediately inform the client early. If difficulties appear, bring to the table solutions or options for your client. Don’t make the bad news solely the client’s issue. If circumstances change and you need to change course in the midst of an engagement, let the client know as soon as possible, so that together you can agree on next steps and they can be documented in writing.
  1. Under promise and over deliver. If you are up against a deadline e.g. if the client wants the work next Friday, ensure you deliver it to them by midday on the Friday at the latest. Don’t leave it until 5 p.m., as the client won’t realistically be able to do anything with it until the following Monday. Make it your objective to under promise and over deliver. The opposite will only lead to unsatisfied clients and a bad relationship with the firm.
  1. Copy your client. Always provide the client with courtesy copies of e-mails, pleadings and other communications in their matter. Not only are you facilitating client communication, but it allows the client to be aware of developments in their case and appreciate the work that the firm is performing on their behalf.
  1. Ensure you give the client what they want. How many times have I seen a young lawyer provide a 10-page opinion letter when the client simply wanted a short answer? Deliver value to your client. Your advice to the client should be in a format they can use.
  1. Follow up with your client. Once a matter is completed, always follow up with the client. Ensure that client has realized value in the legal services delivered and that you have achieved the best results for the client under the circumstances presented.

In everything that you do, always reflect your firm’s values as well as your personal values. Your values are what support your vision for your firm and its culture and principles. Let your firm’s values guide you in your decision making. These values help educate clients about the firm and set your firm apart from other practitioners. It is in this education of clients and your firm’s performance that you invest in best marketing tool you have—client appreciation and satisfaction relayed by word of mouth – the most trusted form of marketing.

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook said: “People influence people. Nothing influences people more than a recommendation from a trusted friend. A trusted referral influences people more than the best broadcast message. A trusted referral is the Holy Grail of advertising.”

Open the lines of client communication from the outset of your engagement and always reflect your values in your practice. These are words to the wise, and will serve you and your firm well in marketing your practice today and well into the future.

About the Author

Tom Bolt is the founder and managing attorney of BoltNagi PC in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, and is the chair of the ABA Law Practice Division.

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