Better margins & happier clients in 2016

December 29, 2015

client demands

Nearly every attorney can recall at least one extremely demanding client: the one who changes deadlines; calls at 11 p.m. with a question that can’t wait; who nit-picks every bill or who tries constantly to get free legal advice outside their official matter.

And, it’s clear that today’s clients want more from their attorney overall, and without paying more.  Since the 2008 economic downturn, 68 percent of lawyers say that clients are demanding more for less, according to a 2014 report by Altman Weil, a legal consulting firm (see an infographic). In an American Bar Association survey, 80 percent of attorneys said that non-hourly billing has become a trend.

Two reasons explain why this is happening.  One is that the legal profession is crowded, especially in the small firm space, where nearly 43% of law school graduates now go if they choose private practice.  The supply of attorneys per capita has more than doubled: from one attorney for every 533 U.S. residents in 1975 to one attorney for every 244 people in 2015. Moreover, online legal services are competing with flesh-and-blood attorneys for legal services such as wills and incorporations; LegalZoom had two million online customers by 2012. In short, it’s a buyers’ market.

S024007_120x600The second reason is technology, which has made clients expect more frequent communication in their business relationships along with their personal lives. 91% of Americans now own cell phones and 85% are online. The Millennial generation has an increasing percentage of the workforce, with high standards of tech expertise and communication that they expect their attorneys to meet.

On top of that, more than 80% of cell phone owners also use them to send texts. Many attorneys give clients their cell phone numbers; as a result, attorneys now receive calls, texts and emails when they are “off the clock,” and clients often don’t want to wait until regular business hours for a response.  According to one survey, 41% of consumers expect a company to respond to an email within six hours. And a text conveys even more urgency.

Between a crowded legal marketplace, pressure on fees and clients’ need to be more connected, attorneys must find a way to demonstrate their value to clients in a way that’s both efficient and personal.  These low-tech and high-tech strategies can help you manage client expectations, then meet them. Some ideas:

  • Agree on expectations early. Be sure both you and your client agree on the critical deadlines for a matter. This will give you not only a roadmap for completing your work, but also some protection if the client wants to change the deadline.  This is the time to discuss billing as well.  Agree not only on your fee, but also how often you will bill and what the fee includes and doesn’t include.
  • Work efficiently and accurately. Consider technology that helps you do more in less time — such as online legal research tools, specifically designed for attorneys, that help you deliver the most accurate answers with the most up-to-date information.
  • Consider a client portal. Linked to practice management software, this allows you to share documents and other information selectively and securely online with clients. The portal gives clients access to a shared folder of information, including documents, critical status updates, research findings and other things.  Encourage the client to check the portal frequently; this will reduce the need for them to contact you personally.
  • Know what you don’t know. A client may occasionally want information that is outside your realm of expertise.  This can put you in the position of being wrong or referring the client to another practice.  Online knowledge tools, curated by attorneys, can give you enough information about other areas of the law to answer their questions and decide whether to refer them elsewhere.

Click here for technology solutions that help you meet today’s client needs.