No one is perfect—it’s an axiom of human nature that our imperfections help make us brilliant, or at least make us…well, us. But some of our little vulnerabilities and blind spots might be saying something to potential clients we would really rather not show, or would at least like to reframe in a more positive light. If you only knew what those things were. Here is a window into what clients really think when they see (or hear) your…
Recorded phone tree/voicemail message.
As someone who works with lawyers daily, I must have heard thousands of law firm phone trees and voicemails. Let’s just say that the old trick of smiling while you record a message so it sounds upbeat is not being employed across the board. When you design a phone tree, make it efficient and simple to navigate, and have the peppiest, clearest voice in the office represent you. When redoing your own voicemail message, make a script, practice it a few times, and do it with a smile on your face until it sounds good.
Your online real estate.
Law firm websites typically do not use enough pictures and contain too much text, especially on the biographies. When using pictures, go professional. When sharing about yourself, keep it simple and sweet. A short biography is appropriate for opposing counsel and colleagues, but clients are most interested in if you can help them and how to contact you. Focus your website on what you do for clients (in client language, not lawyer language) and make contacting you easy.
The phone script.
The worst phone script of all time is a honked “Law Offices” from a harried-sounding receptionist. As if this law office is the only law office in the world, or as if all law offices have their own ancient switchboard that begins right here. This “Law Offices” confuses people. This, to my view, represents the quintessential dumb answer, “We do it that way because we always have.” Use these precious first seconds with potential clients and callers to set the stage for how wonderful it is to work with your law office, by having an actual phone script. Think about making them feel welcome, special and informed when they call.
Your ancient yahoo email address.
Professional law firms should have professional email addresses. You may have had that address for eons, and it may be precious to you. But it does not make your business shine or give you street cred to send your clients emails from email@example.com. or even firstname.lastname@example.org. These emails say, “My law firm is hobbled together without thought, and may not be secure.” You want an email address that says, “I am a businesswoman, I have thought about cybersecurity and a professional demeanor, and I have the infrastructure to support your legal needs,” in every way. Most websites come with emails. Most of them can even forward messages to your favorite email address, while still appearing “branded” (i.e. professional) to your clients and prospects. Set this up today.
Your buttoned-up tie and suit.
When lawyers start in the law, they think they have to play the part. They get slick suits and dress up. Does anyone really like wearing suits? Maybe some do, but research shows that building a rapport with clients is easier when you mirror them—both in body language and dress. This means if your client base is buttoned-up, you should be too. But if your client base is casual, consider going business casual. This doesn’t mean slovenly, but try a nice sweater instead of a suit jacket, or maybe ditch the tie. If the research is right, clients will feel more relaxed and open towards you if you look a little more like them. Of course, this is for meetings, not court.
Your pokey internet.
Do you find yourself waiting for your system to boot up or respond while you are talking with clients? Do you ever sigh and complain a bit—“Ugh, this software is so slow,” or “Let me just get into your file here. It takes a while to warm up.” I am sympathetic to rural America, which still has true internet dead zones to deal with, but this isn’t the solution. Doing this in front of potential clients may say to them, “I haven’t invested in technology,” or worse, “I don’t really like technology,” or the worst, “I don’t understand how to use my own technology very well.” To my view, it’s the equivalent of complaining about a co-worker. “I’m sorry you had to put up with Rachel. She’s so embarrassing to the firm. I keep telling my boss to let her go.” That would be unforgivable! So should be disparaging your technological teammate to new potential clients. Get better at using it, invest in faster internet, and prepare for the meeting beforehand. Or don’t boot up until after they leave.
Your brisk explanation.
Lawyers wear a few hats. The advocate’s hat often takes precedence, because it has deliverables such as motions and briefs; and because it requires intense preparation, such as preparing for trial or court appearance. Do your best to not let the role of counselor be overshadowed by the others. Clients want to understand what is happening to them; what the steps of the process are; and need a modicum of reassurance that this is normal, survivable, difficult but doable. They don’t know what the acronyms you use daily mean. They usually don’t really know a single step, even if they’ve self-diagnosed their legal issue online before they met with you. You are the expert, their guide, so take that role just as seriously as all the others (if not more).
Your gloomy scowl.
Did you know that lawyers are way more pessimistic than the general population? Did you know we can be a bit dark? We deal in the dismal, so it is no surprise we sometimes start to reflect it. Clients notice this. It’s not just the subject matter. It is how we deal with it. Think about what your body language is saying when you talk about a client’s case or appear in court. If you find you have a gloomy scowl on your face, see if you can add a little humor or honest softness to your eyes and lips. I know, this sounds so fake, but research shows it is good for our well-being, too. This doesn’t mean that you should deliver bad news with a creepy smile. Be proportionate to the situation, but see if you can’t draw a little more positivity into the law office. If this is trying, do a gratitude list of three things every morning, noon, and night for a week. See if that helps.
Your stern fee agreement terms.
We lament the fact that clients don’t read the fee agreement closely enough, but if clients did, I think some lawyers would have fewer (if any) clients. Some fee agreements reflect the difficulty lawyers have in charging for and collecting reasonable fees. The terms are sometimes so stern, that no client in his or her right mind would sign up for what it says. The ironic thing is most lawyers with those terms say they would rarely (sometimes never) do what the contract authorizes. They tell me they just wanted to reserve the right to if they decided to. We all want to reserve some power there, but don’t do it at the expense of your reputation as a fair and pleasant person with your clients. Re-read your fee terms from a client perspective, and see if there is a better, simpler way to write them.
Your opaque bill.
Lawyers don’t have to use acronyms, abbreviations, and this crazy tenth-of-an-hour calculation thing. Make your bill really readable and clear. Think of it as a record of all the amazing work you have done and how much your team shines. Make it less like the phone bill, and more like a menu with pictures.
Your warm hand.
Not everything you are doing sabotages your success. I hope only one or two things in this article make you nod and realize that you could use a little polishing or modification. But let’s look at a few things I see lawyers do marvelously. I have seen you take a potential client’s hand and shake it warmly while you made eye contact, before starting a meeting. That person’s shoulders went down an inch and their face softened. That moment of human connection did wonders to ease that person’s tension, even despite language barriers and anxiety. That handshake is magical in the respect is transmits. Keep doing that.
Your intuitive questions.
Lawyers are some of the best question-askers I have ever seen. We stay with a topic to the end. We ask around difficult stuff, but don’t quit until we get to the core. We ask what no one else asked. We are naturally curious and inquisitive. Inherent in this is being good listeners as well. We think on our feet, understand hidden agendas or desires in people. We read the room and we are better for it. This is, to my view, another of the undervalued roles of a lawyer. If you do this, be very proud of what to do there and keep at it. If you don’t feel especially great at this, be patient and learn from those around you. And be brave—don’t shy away from the tough answers.
Your honest counsel.
Please continue to give your clients honest counsel, even when the answer is “I don’t know how this will come out,” or “I cannot see this being financially worth your while. Is there another solution than going to court over this, that would satisfy you?” The world needs honesty. We have an obligation to be honest to all. We are the bearers of truth, which is sometimes as close to justice as we can get. Keep doing that in spades.
About the Author
Charity Anastasio is a practice management advisor for the American Immigration Lawyers Association and is active in leadership in the ABA Law Practice Division. Contact her on Twitter @charityanas.