Lawyers have a tendency to focus on the task at hand without communicating their actions to clients. They may be doing a great job with documents, the courts or the opposing parties, but the clients are never told. Attorneys may think they are communicating when they prepare clients for depositions and pleadings and ask for documents. But that's not the kind of interaction that gives clients a sense of what's happening in their matters. No matter how successful the result, the client doesn't understand what the lawyer accomplished and may refuse to pay the bill when it comes due. Solve this problem in reaching out proactively to your clients. Don't wait for them to come to you. Send them copies of all relevant documents that come into the office and provide status reports on a regular basis.
Status reports can be particularly valuable because they demonstrate that you are on top of your job and are actively working to accomplish what the client wants. Status reports do not have to be a detailed administrative burden. I recommend a simple form, like the one that was originally developed by Michigan attorney, Wes Hackett, a good friend. It can easily be saved as a word processing file, with appropriate boxes to be checked and blanks to be filled in for a few basic categories. The goal is to show clients what you are working on now, what you might need from them and what your next steps will be. Particularly useful is a section that shows clients the current status of their accounts with you and how much they should pay to bring the account current. If anyone wants a copy of the form itself, send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Using a tool like this shows your clients how highly you value them by how much you communicate to them and interact with them. It makes them feel that they are part of the team, and they will respond with their loyalty. Don't worry about whether you are unnecessarily bothering them. Clients appreciate communication - the more, the better. "Paper" clients, keep them informed and tell them what's happening at every step. And, by the way, this is a great malpractice prevention tool! In order to complete the form, you must review the file; reviewing the file assures that anything you may have forgotten to do during the previous 30 days will be elevated in priority to be done during the next 30 days. Few items are so time sensitive that they can't be caught up in the following month. Voila! No negligence; no malpractice.
Many lawyers, unfortunately, never figure out that their clients are unhappy. If they don't hear from a client after completing a matter, they just think that the client has no additional legal work. They don't realize that the client was so unhappy that, though he didn't complain, he just didn't return!
Loyalty is built through more than mere competence. As I've written here before, clients see lawyers as competent, and on a skill level typically can't tell the difference among lawyers. But what a client does understand and appreciate is a lawyer's loyalty, as shown by concrete actions and responsiveness to his inquiries. Client loyalty is the product of true collaborative partnership, and communication is the way that partnership is built. A simple status report can be the critical step in building a longtime relationship that benefits both lawyer and client.
Ed Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC, is a recognized expert in law practice management. He partners with attorneys and law firms to increase profitability, coaching them on issues of internal operations, practice development, & financial matters. Ed enables lawyers to be more effective with their clients with less stress for both the lawyer and the client. He practiced law for 25 years, has coached lawyers for 20 years, and is the author of 13 leading books. His latest book, Growing Your Law Practice Through Tough Times, was released in April 2010. Ed is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, State Bar of California (LPMT Section).
Ed is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management, a board-certified Coach to the Legal Profession and a charter member of the Million Dollar Consulting® Hall of Fame. He can be reached at (800) 837-5880, www.lawbiz.com, www.lawbizblog.com and www.lawbizforum.com.