February 5, 2014
In this final installment on maintenance for law firms, we’ll be talking not about maintaining records or files, but maintaining something a bit more abstract: interpersonal relationships. Specifically, your relationships with your clients.
After all, maintaining strong client relationships helps ensure that you continue to have clients, and it’s difficult to practice law without clients.
Here are five tips for maintaining strong relationships with your clients.
1. Set proper expectations
I’ve dedicated a full post to this already, but here’s the rundown:
You can’t expect every outcome to be favorable to your client. Most of the time, compromises must be made, and sometimes, despite how strong of a legal case you believe that you have, court rulings come down completely against you. It’s for this reason that you should not give your client any indication of your success rate.
No matter how airtight your legal case, you may have a judge who doesn’t follow the law as he or she should. Even if things look promising for your client after being in court, there’s really no telling how a judge will rule until the actual ruling is handed down.
As such, instead of discussing your client’s chances – which nearly every client insists on doing – all you can really say is that “our legal case is strong” (if it actually is) but that “anything can happen,” and that all you can do is “try our best.” Sadly, a courtroom can act as a roulette wheel on a disturbing number of instances. But that’s just the way of things, and your client shouldn’t be expecting an easy victory.
Furthermore, even if you bypass the courtroom and head to the negotiation/mediation table to resolve the case, your client shouldn’t reasonably expect not to compromise to reach an agreement.
If your client goes into the legal matter expecting a positive outcome, there’s a very real chance of disappointment – the blame for which, whether it’s justified, will almost always fall on you as the attorney.
Instead of potentially souring your client relationships with false hope, make sure that your client understands the reality of legal disputes.
2. Be responsive in your communications
This seems like a small thing, but it goes a surprisingly long way.
If a client contacts you (sends an email, leaves a voicemail, etc), make sure to respond as soon as possible. Even if you don’t have the information that he or she may be looking for, you should still respond and let him or her know.
How quickly and regularly you get back to clients shows them that you place a lot of importance on them and their respective cases. Moreover, regularly communicating with your clients also serves to strengthen the attorney-client relationship in and of itself.
3. Be on your client’s side
Yes, every attorney is (or should be), by definition, acting on behalf of his or her client’s best interests. But that isn’t necessarily the same thing as being “on your client’s side.”
Look at it this way: your client takes his or her legal problem personally; that is, he or she is personally invested in the progress and outcome of the matter.
I’ve previously advised against attorneys becoming emotionally involved themselves in their client’s cases, and that advice remains extended. But just because you shouldn’t get emotionally invested in your cases doesn’t mean that you can’t be empathetic to your client.
For example, if something seems unfair, acknowledge that to your client – even if you can’t do anything to change it. Your client wants to feel like you’re in the trenches with him or her, not radioing in strategy from a secure, undisclosed location.
4. Be the best attorney you can be
It should go without saying that you should always try your best in all of your cases, but sometimes, for whatever reason, the temptation to cut corners presents itself. Maybe you know that the chances of success are extremely slim; maybe you don’t believe that what your client is trying to do is morally right; or maybe you find yourself short on time.
None of these reasons are sufficient, however, to do substandard work for your client (if you truly cannot do an adequate job for your client because of a moral disagreement, you should withdraw). You should approach every case with the attitude that everything you do for that client will be done to the best of your ability.
Your client can tell when you are giving it your best and when your engagement and passion is lacking. I shouldn’t need to explain which one will strengthen your client relationships.
5. Advocate for your client
I mean really advocate for your client. This is distinguishable from tip #4 in that this means more than just the quality of your legal work. This means that your advocacy for your client’s interests should be strong enough that your client knows that you care about his or her case.
To put it in sports parlance, this applies to your attitude “on and off the field” – meaning, that you should be a strong advocate for your client “on the field:” in court, mediation/negotiation, and in your written legal documents (although never to the point that the objective quality of your work suffers as a result), and “off the field:” when discussing the case with your client privately.
Your client should know that his or her case is very important to you, and that will leave a strong, positive impression on your client.
In the end, the impression that your client has of you will determine whether he or she sticks with you (or refers you to others). Of course, winning all of your cases all but ensures that you will make a positive impression on your clients.