Updated: May 5
By Heidi Turner,
Your clients are key to your law firm's success. While that may sound like common sense, it is vital that successful law firms understand what that means for their client communications. These days, it is not just about telling people how many court cases they have won, or multi-million dollar contracts they have handled. Clients need more from their law firms than being prescriptively told what to do, with little room for discussion.
While the concept of a law firm being client centric has gained traction in recent years, there is a great deal of uncertainty about what it means or how to implement client-centric policies. Although some law firms have altered how they help clients navigate the legal system—especially during pandemic times, when technology must be more quickly embraced—how they communicate with their clients has not changed much.
Here, I explore what it means to be client centric and how you can implement client-focused strategies in your law firm communications.
What it means for a law firm to be client centric
So what does being client centered mean? And what are some steps you can take to ensure your law firm is client centered?
Being client centered means that you build your firm and develop its processes with the customer perspective and experience at the forefront of your planning. It means you are willing to adopt policies and procedures that might cost you a bit more, or take more of your time and energy, but that make the process more comfortable for your clients.
It is not just about your policies and processes, however. It is also about your culture. Your law firm's culture must be aligned with your customers' needs. The people in your law firm must be committed to improving the customer experience—including enhancing the value your clients receive. This can mean giving more detailed updates about their legal matter or connecting your clients to other people or organizations in your network at no charge.
It is vital to recognize that increased billable hours—or more time spent working on a client case—does not necessarily mean the client gets more value for their relationship with you. Increased billable hours might actually feel like less value from your client's perspective.
Being client centric also does not mean adopting every new technology that you come across. Not all technology enhances the customer relationship. But it is worth asking if a new technology can improve your clients' experience with your law firm.
Consider automated phone answering systems. Scores of businesses use automated technology to answer and route phone calls—but those systems replace a vital human interaction. Many people would rather speak to a person when they place a phone call, rather than being answered by a robotic voice that asks them to wait on hold or dial an extension number. Almost nothing says, "We don't care about your call" more than an automated phone system.
In this case, while an automated phone system might free up your receptionist's time, it might not be worth the expense if your clients feel they are missing out on an important interaction that affects their experience with your firm.
Before you adopt a new policy, procedure, or technology, ask how it will improve your clients' experience. If it will negatively affect the experience, consider finding an alternative.
How does being client centered affect my law firm's communications?
Clients need information from you. It is rare to have a client relationship that requires no communication. How you communicate—and how often you do so—says a lot about how client centered you are. Remember, every communication is an opportunity to shape your clients' experience of your firm. It is also an opportunity to enhance your value.
Some law firms go no further than providing updates on files as they occur. Often, clients are left with follow-up questions, but feel there is no room to ask. Client-centered communications should allow your clients and prospects to feel empowered in their legal situation, and free to ask questions so they fully understand their situation and the options available to them.
When you communicate with your clients, take a moment to anticipate what questions they are likely to ask, and proactively answer them. Allow your clients a full picture of what is happening and provide them with information so they can make an informed decision. Give space for follow-up questions or concerns.
It is reasonable for you to set clear expectations about the level of communication you will offer, as well. If you send out a welcome package to new clients, include a note about how often you will communicate and when. Let clients know how best to reach you and when they can expect responses from you. If you do not answer emails or phone calls on weekends, let them know. That way, they will not be surprised if they do not hear from you immediately in response to a Saturday morning email.
Use your law firm's communications to enhance the client experience
You do not have to limit your communications with clients or prospects to times when you are updating them about their legal issue. Get to know them and what they consider important.
You can send links to articles you think they will find interesting or relevant. Research their business to better understand the context they operate in. You could even set up a Google Alert for their business and congratulate them on a publicized success or change to their business.
Reach out to them to let them know how recent legal changes affect them.
Communicate in the forum or manner your clients want, not what you think they want.
Find out how your clients want to communicate with you and offer those options.
The 2018 Legal Trends Report from Clio found that as much as 55% of clients expect an in-person meeting to learn about the legal aspects of their case, while only 2% of lawyers thought clients would want a meeting for that reason. Meanwhile, 70% of consumers want an in-person meeting to tell their lawyers the details of their matter, but only 3% of lawyers thought that was the situation.
There is a gap between how clients want to communicate with lawyers and what lawyers think clients want. Make sure you understand what your clients expect from you.
Understand the difference between client experience and client service
Client experience and client service are not the same thing. Your client service feeds into the client experience, but the client experience refers to the sum of all interactions a particular client has with your law firm.
This can include everything from their first view of your website, to their following you on social media, to the final bill you send them after your consultations are complete.
Client service refers individual actions that occur when a client comes to you to resolve a problem. Each individual action contributes to the client experience, but doesn't make up the whole thing.
Steps to communicating with your clients in mind
1. Create a robust welcome package
Your welcome package is an excellent way to not only make your new clients feel valued, but to set expectations and enhance their comfort. Create a template for welcome packages that can be easily tailored to each individual client.
That template could include a photo and bio of every person they are likely to interact with during their relationship with your firm. Though it is common to only include the attorneys' bios, include everyone, such as the paralegals, associates and receptionists. Include links to their LinkedIn profiles if they have a LinkedIn account.
In the welcome package set the expectations for how and when they should reach out. Can they reach out at any time and expect an immediate response? Is it better if they use the phone on weekdays? Do you respond to text or email?
Even if you cannot lay out the entire process they will go through, you can set out the initial steps and how you'll proceed with any decision-making. Will you need or want their input on every decision? Will you check with them on certain decisions? How will you assess the cost/benefits of all options open to your clients?
This sort of information is invaluable to a client and helps your relationship run more smoothly because they know what to expect from you—and what you expect from them.
2. Write a website that addresses your clients' needs and questions
Lawyers and law firms often view their website as reputation confirmers, but these days your
law firm's website is a vital information portal.
Your legal website is often a prospect's first real interaction with your firm, and readers nowadays expect to find answers to their questions. Unfortunately, many law firms write their websites only with a view to the questions they think are important, but without understanding if the information they give is the information prospects seek.
Clients rarely care about the long list of the cases you've worked on or list of schools you attended. They care that you understand their needs and their fears. That is how you build trust with them.
Consider the following example of a list item commonly found on lawyers' bios: "Obtained summary judgment in Theroux vs. Williams (San Francisco County Superior Court Case No. XXX).
Do your potential clients know what a summary judgment is? They probably have no idea how Theroux vs. Williams is relevant to them, and they aren't likely to research it. So the information in that list item is meaningless to them. All they can assume is that the list item indicates a win, because otherwise you would not mention it.
Instead, give more details that readers will find both engaging and relevant.
"Prevented a lawsuit against our client—a small business owner in San Francisco—from going to trial by proving there were no merits to the claim against her." Even if you do not go any deeper than this, readers know that you are committed to avoiding trial if possible, you represent small business owners, and you are capable of successfully arguing the merits of a case.
This information is much more valuable and easier to read—and it is more likely to establish a connection with your potential client.
3. Make sure you understand your clients
Give your clients ample opportunity to talk about their situation. They are likely feeling stressed, nervous, or anxious when they see you, and although you might think that jumping in with answers before they finish talking reassures them, it often has the opposite effect.
Instead, take the time to fully understand the context in which they sought you out. Ask a lot of questions. Listen to them as they talk. Show them you understand by repeating back what they have said to you. Clients are more likely to trust you if they know you took the time to understand them, their needs, and their situation.
Send follow-up communications after meetings that summarize what was said, what was decided, and next steps for everyone involved. If you are awaiting information from the client, be clear about what you need and when you need it.
It helps to remember that you are not just building a reputation when you meet with clients or prospects, you are building a relationship.
4. Write in plain language
Lawyers are used to writing for the courts and for their law school. Clients and prospects do not have the same understanding of legal phrasing and terminology as professors or other members of the legal industry do.
You cannot communicate effectively with your audience if your audience cannot understand you. The general population does not have a solid grasp of legal phrases and long sentences with numerous clauses. If they cannot understand your communications, they will not work with you.
Remember that your clients do not have the same knowledge or experience as you. Most of what you do on a daily basis, they are unfamiliar with.
Do not assume that they know or understand a concept or option. Explain it and leave room for questions.
5. Ask for feedback
According to that 2018 Legal Trends survey, 75% of law firms say improving client care and satisfaction is important to their firm's success. But a full 37% of law firms say they do not collect feedback at all.
To make effective changes and improve client satisfaction, you need to know how well you are currently meeting client needs. Speak with current and former clients to find out where your communications worked well and where you could improve. Ask what would have helped them feel more comfortable or informed while working with you.
Do not just use an informal case-by-case process to collect client feedback. Make it part of every client relationship, so you can obtain meaningful data to guide your client-centric law firm.
Take their feedback to heart. See if the information they give suggests possibilities for better communication. Offer options based on the responses to your feedback.
You can be client centered and still have boundaries
There is a difference between being client-centered and following the whim of every client who walks through the door. You need to have clear boundaries with your clients about your relationship and obligations.
Being client centered means putting policies, procedures, and practices in place that enhance the client experience. That does not mean that you have to cater to unreasonable expectations. If you do not want to communicate on certain days, you do not have to. But it helps to let the client know ahead of time that you will be unreachable.
Your communications provide a vital opportunity to ensure your clients have a positive experience with your law firm that leaves them feeling empowered. Using client-centered communications not only helps you connect with your clients, it can build the foundation for a long-term relationship and encourage them to refer you to people in their network.
Clients want to understand you and be understood by you. Using client-centered approaches to communication can help you achieve that.
About the Author Heidi Turner is an award-winning legal writer and editor. Since 2006, she has helped her clients in the legal industry—including lawyers and law firms, legal technology companies, and legal SaaS organizations—connect with their target audience and establish their authority. She helps her clients find authentic ways to engage their audience and build a reputation, with a focus on client-centric communications.
In addition to her writing and editing work, Heidi is an instructor in Simon Fraser University's editing program.