Every time you communicate with your clients, you’re shaping their impression of you and your firm. To cultivate a positive reputation, enhance your clients’ experience and ensure your law firm’s success, effective client communication isn’t a “nice to have”—it’s essential.
And, although many firms believe they interact effectively with their clients and prospects, research shows a disconnect between the ways lawyers communicate with clients and how clients would actually prefer to communicate. For instance, according to the 2018 Legal Trends Report, 55% of legal customers want to learn about the legal aspects of a case in person—but only 2% of lawyers think their clients prefer in-person meetings.
By learning how to overcome this communication gap, you can build a more efficient, client-centered and profitable law firm. The following guide will show you how.
Six client communication best practices
1. Communicate clearly and often
Good client communication is about being proactive so that clients feel truly cared for and informed. Make a deliberate effort to ensure your client understands what’s going on, and you’ll avoid unnecessary communication breakdowns. A few ways to do this:
- Avoid legal jargon. Default to plain language instead, and leave an opening for questions about anything clients don’t understand.
- Answer questions preemptively. After client meetings, send a secure message that summarizes what was discussed and provides supplemental info for the next steps.
2. Set expectations
Setting expectations upfront makes a big difference for effective client communication. Help frame your clients’ experience and avoid disappointment by outlining:
- How (and how often) you’ll be in touch. Specify in your engagement letters how often communications can be expected, and what they will entail.
- Which channels you’ll use. Specify if clients can reach you by phone, email, text, etc.
- Your availability. Detail availability expectations to ensure you can care for yourself while meeting your clients’ needs. 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. Setting clear expectations from the start prevents issues.
3. Develop interpersonal skills
Keeping your people skills sharp helps ensure that your clients feel heard, cared for and informed. Watch for visual cues when communicating in person, stay present, and ask probing questions when you sense there’s more to the story than what the client is telling you.
Additionally, because you might not be the only person interacting with your clients, make sure your staff are developing strong interpersonal skills as well. Lay out best practices and guidelines for client communication, and share them with new paralegals, administrative assistants, and associates.
4. Listen, listen, listen
It’s easy for lawyers to jump in with their thoughts before they’ve truly understood the problem—and this can leave clients feeling as if they’re not truly being heard.
As Irene Leonard of Coaching for Change explains: “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.”
To improve one’s listening skills, Irene suggests avoiding interruptions or rehearsed answers while the client is talking, and instead attuning yourself to your clients’ emotions as they speak.
5. Know when to automate communications
Automating tedious or repetitive processes can be a big win for law firms, but the automation of communication needs to be done carefully, so it’s convenient for both you and your client.
In general, simple and transactional communications—such as a new client welcome letter—are fine to automate, but more personal and specific communications are best left to humans.
Why is that? Because no one likes to hear bad news from a robot—and anxious clients don’t want to contact your office in hopes of getting updates on their cases, only to receive automated responses. Reaching out yourself or having a receptionist or virtual receptionist provide an empathetic, timely response can help calm your clients’ nerves.
6. Know which medium to use
Different communication channels may be more or less appropriate for different situations. Consider whether it’s best to deliver news, answer questions, or provide updates via phone, email, personal letter, text, or another medium.
Also, consider what types of communication channels your clients prefer—and can easily access. Some clients may prefer a quick text message to answer a question, but depending on your clients’ situations, not all may have access to cell phones. Likewise, you may prefer emailing your clients, but if they don’t have personal computers at home, this can be a challenge. Understanding your clients and their life situations is key in this area; when in doubt, ask them how they would best like for you to reach them.
Communication security and ethics
Getting client communications right can also help you stay compliant with ethics rules. Lawyers have a duty to communicate case updates to their clients in a timely manner—and as Megan Zavieh points out, many ethics complaints start with clients feeling they haven’t received sufficient communication from their lawyers.
Lawyers also have a duty to keep client information confidential—and with the advent of new regulations such as the European Union’s GDPR, it’s more important than ever for lawyers to educate themselves on new legal technologies, and to do their due diligence regarding any tools used at their firms.
Best practices to help keep client information secure include:
- Ensuring your communication channels are secure and encrypted, and that you’re on top of standards for keeping client information confidential.
- Following ethics rules and guidelines on social media, including:
- Keeping personal and professional accounts separate.
- Not referring to yourself as an “expert.”
- Avoiding inadvertently creating lawyer-client relationships.
- Never sharing confidential information via social media platforms. (See a more extensive list of social media do’s and don’ts here.)
- Being mindful when working in public areas where others can see your screen.
- Making sure that your clients and everyone at your firm use strong passwords.
- Using a secure client portal when sharing documents and other sensitive information.
Considering the whole client journey
It’s important to be conscious of how your firm communicates with clients throughout the whole client journey, because aside from having happier clients in general, giving your clients an exceptional start-to-finish journey can help your firm grow. According to the 2017 Legal Trends Report, 62% of consumers ask friends and family for recommendations when they’re looking to hire a lawyer. To increase referrals and positive reviews, you want to communicate effectively from the first call or point of contact during client intake, all the way through the resolution of the client’s matter, invoicing, payment, and beyond.
Here are a few ways to help promote a positive client journey:
- Make your website and marketing materials clear, informative, and engaging.
- Ensure client intake is smooth and painless.
- Remember that bills are a valuable communication tool: Add detailed notes so that your clients understand what they’re being billed for, and clearly illustrate services you’ve written off to show the full value you’re providing.
- Ask for feedback. There’s likely room for improvement in terms of client communication—but you won’t know what to tweak unless you ask.
Tools for effective client communication
Today, there are many great options for providing strong client communication, including:
Effective email communication can help law firms efficiently keep clients informed and up-to-date. 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 or matter.
When you’re missing a receptionist and an automated out-of-office message won’t do, a receptionist service can help take care of your clients. Ruby Receptionists, for example, answers your business calls and syncs all your calls and messages with Clio.
Many clients prefer to text, so educate yourself on tools to help meet this need efficiently.
Zipwhip, for example, lets you 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.
Consider using a secure client portal to help protect client communications when you share information, send documents, and invoice clients.
Client portals can also help make client communications more efficient and ensure clients feel empowered. For example, Nicholas Hite of The Hite Law Group gives clients the option to use Clio Connect, a secure communication portal, so that clients can access information related to their cases on their own.
Client intake and client relationship management tools
You don’t get a second chance at making a first impression, so make sure your clients have a positive intake process experience.
Clio Grow is client intake software that makes it easy to streamline your entire client intake process and retain new clients easier and faster, Clio Grow also syncs seamlessly with Clio Manage to connect client intake with your practice management software.
Good client communication is key to your law firm’s success. Better communication leads to stronger client experiences, increased positive reviews, and more potential referrals for your law firm.
By putting your clients at the center of everything, you’ll be better positioned to communicate intentionally, provide great experiences, and build a strong reputation for your firm.
One last tip? Don’t be afraid to use technology, experiment with new tools and processes, and think outside the box to improve your client communications. It’ll make more of a difference than you’d expect, and you could see more success—and happier clients—than ever before.
About the Author
Teresa Matich is an experienced legal tech writer and editor. She’s the editor of the Clio Blog, the co-producer of Clio’s Matters podcast, and has written for publications such as Legal Technology Today and Above the Law. She’s also interviewed dozens of practicing lawyers and leading legal industry thinkers, including Preet Bharara and Bryan Stevenson.
Clio’s industry-leading cloud-based legal practice management, client intake and legal CRM software simplifies law firm operations, improves productivity, and increases revenues. Clio’s product suite is trusted by 150,000 legal professionals and approved by over 66 bar associations and law societies, globally. Learn more at www.clio.com.