Communicate regularly, simply, and clearly
Sometimes legal clients can feel alienated from their lawyers because they don't know what's going on.
In the worst cases, clients feel their lawyer doesn't understand or care about their matter, which we know isn't true but clients often don't understand the sheer volume of work lawyers deal with. Running your own practice keeps you extremely busy, from dealing with multiple clients, to ensuring your trust accounting is in order, how can you overcome this alienation issue, effectively communicate with clients, and continue to maintain an economically viable caseload?
What do clients expect of their lawyers?
Relationships with clients are complicated, they consist of a number of important expectations. You are expected to play the role of an advisor, informing them about how the law would apply to their matter, expressing the range of possible outcomes frankly and talking about the realistic possibilities regarding the outcome. You should be able to negotiate effectively, and regularly consult with and incorporate your client's wishes in negotiations. You're expected to apply expertise when drafting documents and advocate for your client, not other parties.
You're expected to provide good service which means the client expects their phone calls to be returned the same day and to be communicated with regularly. You're expected to provide copies of important correspondence so clients feel abreast and in control of their matter use your time wisely and constantly do your best within the confines of your practice. You're also expected to be a good listener and to empathise with the client's problem while addressing important questions that clients may be uncomfortable talking about.
To summarise, you're expected to be an advisor, counsellor and lawyer, all while running your own practice.
What do clients think of their lawyers?
An analysis of complaints to 40 international law societies found that 39 of the 40 participant's primary complaints were regarding service. Though the study was not solely focused on Australia, the lessons apply to the legal profession as a whole.
Specifically, clients complain most about unclear and infrequent communication. It's common for clients to complain that lawyers don't communicate in a language they can understand, but speak what clients call "legalese." Though jargon is common among lawyers, it should not be with clients. Clear and simple English should always be used or chances are your client will leave the conversation more confused than when they came into it.
Clients describe misunderstandings about expectations that are not made clear. They often complain that sometimes lawyers will arrange several meetings for something that could have been handled more simply. Sometimes clients fear that the lawyer's explanations of what they said in "legalese" are going to add to their expense, so they remain silent, without having clarity of what was said. You can accidentally diminish the importance and priority of your client's matter by telling them that you're "swamped" and have so much to do with other clients. Clients want to know how long their matter is going to take, they don't want their matter to be bogged down endlessly without reason or explanation. Sometimes it's impossible to know just how long a matter will take, but if you're honest about this and how long you think it will take, chances are your client will feel a lot more relaxed.
How to improve communication.
The analysis of client expectations about communication with their lawyers provides a clear road map toward improving communication.
- Give clear explanations of the process and possible outcomes in simple terms, making sure your client understands everything.
- Consult your client about negotiations and any work you do on their behalf.
- Listen and empathise with your client's issues.
- Don't use "legalese" without clear translation into simple English terms.
- Keep clients informed about delays or complications which are going to affect your billable hours and the general longevity of the matter.
- Make time for your client. Promptly return phone calls when the client calls you. Many lawyers establish turn-around times and stick to them.