How To Nurture The Attorney-Client Relationship
In Stockton v. Ford 52 U.S. 232 (1850), the U.S. Supreme Court said, "There are few of the business relations of life involving a higher trust and confidence than that of attorney and client."
Clients trust their attorneys with their most consequential problems. The stakes involved can include loss of freedom, financial ruin, or a forever-changed relationship with a family member.
Even cases dealing with lesser issues require emotional and financial investment from clients. If the legal action is voluntary, clients wouldn't absorb the cost unless they were deeply attached to a specific outcome.
Read on to learn about the attorney-client relationship and why building a good rapport with your clients is critical to your law firm. We'll also share five effective client relationship strategies you can implement today.
The Attorney-Client Relationship
The U.S. legal system supports full trust between client and lawyer in several ways. Two of the most impactful are attorney-client privilege and the enforcement of professional ethics for lawyers—guaranteeing the confidentiality of client-lawyer conversations promotes client honesty. That honesty, in turn, allows the attorney to provide better advice. Mandating professional ethics also helps clients feel comfortable that their case will be handled with the utmost integrity and care.
Professional ethics for lawyers are largely defined by the American Bar Association's (ABA) Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Those rules cover a wide range of topics, from confidentiality to the avoidance of interest conflicts. Rule 1.4 deals entirely with communication, and appropriately so. An attorney's daily handling of information can either support client trust or destroy it.
LawPay offers a free Continuing Legal Education (CLE) course on this business-critical topic. Creating Strong and Effective Client Relationships: The Art of Collaboration and Communication led by attorney Claude Ducloux delves into the common issues leading to complaints against lawyers and proactive strategies for minimizing those problems.
Why is Having a Strong Lawyer-Client Relationship Important?
Conceptually, strong attorney-client relationships contribute to a better, more functional legal system. Full trust between lawyer and client prevents feelings of neglect for the client. The lawyer also realizes business benefits from that positive client experience—specifically, more positive reviews and referrals.
Prevents Feelings of Neglect
FindLaw reports that "neglect and lack of communication" is one of the most common legal ethics violations.
There are several factors that can prompt clients to feel neglected. One is the natural slowness of the legal process. You have experience with the slow-turning wheels of justice, but your clients may not. Weeks can pass without any significant milestones on the case. If your clients don't believe you are working diligently on their behalf, they're likely to blame delays on you personally—even when those delays are beyond your control.
Another factor is the difference in perspective between the lawyer and the client. Your client is involved in one case, while you are working several simultaneously. The division of your time and attention is a reality, but one that should not be highlighted for your client.
Regular, ongoing communication with your client goes a long way toward building that solid working relationship. Attorneys who communicate consistently simply don't have clients who feel neglected.
Get More Positive Reviews
Positive reviews drive more business for your law firm. In a survey by iLawyerMarketing, 84% of respondents said they wouldn't hire a law firm unless its online review scores were 4 stars or higher.
When you routinely cultivate meaningful attorney-client relationships, you lay the groundwork for positive reviews. Clients who respect you and the work you do will happily share their good experiences—especially if you ask them to.
Those positive reviews can bring new clients to your door and help you convert more prospects.
The way you interact with your current clients is an audition for future clients. If you treat your clients respectfully and handle their cases with integrity, that's what they'll describe to their friends and family. If you don't touch base often and fail to return phone calls, friends and family will hear that too.
A reputation for integrity will earn you referral clients. A reputation for poor communication will not.
Tips for Building Your Attorney-Client Relationships
Building and cultivating attorney-client relationships that invite positive reviews is easier said than done. It's best to tackle this challenge from multiple angles, including improving your client intake process. Use the following five strategies as a framework for building better attorney-client relationships.
Focus on Communication
You likely check in with clients when you have an update or when you need their input. But what about the rest of the time? If you looked through your client list today, could you identify some that have experienced long periods of silence from you?
Develop a cadence for reaching out to clients periodically. It's acceptable to tell clients there are no updates on their case. This at least keeps them from wondering what's happening. You can also use that time to ask if they have any new questions or concerns. This simple check-in shows clients you are making time for them.
Don't Overload Your Responsibilities
Taking on more business is great for your bottom line, but not when you spread yourself too thin and your clients pay the price. An overloaded schedule works against your ability to serve each client thoughtfully and completely.
A full-featured time tracking system can help you here. When you track time by task, you get an improved sense of how long different actions take to complete. Watch that data over time and you may learn that you've been consistently underestimating your commitments.
If that's resulting in you working long hours, day in and day out, know that the quality of your work will suffer eventually. Whether it takes hiring an assistant or pausing new client intakes, find a way to keep your workload realistic. Your client relationships depend on it.
Listen to Your Clients
You may have had the experience of not being heard by a service provider. If so, you know it's incredibly frustrating. It feels as though your provider is just working on autopilot, without regard for your needs.
For any lawyer-client interview, get in the habit of asking detailed questions, probing with follow-up questions, and taking notes in their client file. You need to know what motivates them and their primary concerns. Armed with that information, you can interact with them on their terms and give them more appropriate legal advice.
It’s important to know, too, that a client's mindset can change over time. Listening responsibilities don't end after the intake meeting. Be present and attentive in every client interaction, for the duration of the lawyer-client relationship. Attorneys who follow that advice will naturally earn the trust of their clients.
Manage Expectations Around Outcomes
Your clients willingly express their concerns and you should do the same. Openly give your client feedback on the case, both the good and the bad. If there are risks or weaknesses, and there always are, you must communicate them. In the context of lawyer-client relationships, unfounded optimism doesn't serve anyone.
As the adage goes, it's better to under-promise and over-deliver. Over-promising only invites disappointment.
Be Transparent With Billing
Your invoices are an important form of communication with your clients. They document the work you've done, how long it took, and what it costs. Like it or not, clients use that information to assess your value. They'll either conclude that it's money well spent or they'll feel buyer's remorse.
The good news is, you can influence the emotional impact of your invoices. Clear, detailed task descriptions show value and build trust. A consistent invoicing schedule demonstrates professionalism and online payment options show that you value your client's time.
You can easily incorporate those features into your billing system with technology. As an example, LawPay Pro digitizes and integrates time- and expense-tracking, customer payments, and accounts reconciliation. Customer invoices are created directly from a time record, which streamlines invoicing and makes it easier to bill on a regular schedule.
Take an interest in your clients as human beings. Often, you can learn a lot about a client's goals for the case by looking beyond the case itself. Learn more about their lives outside of their legal issues. Chances are, you'll gather some details that are directly or indirectly relevant. At a minimum, you'll better understand their situation and needs.
Future references to any personal information you gather also foster trust and good feelings—especially if it's unrelated to the case. Asking how your client's daughter managed her first week of college, for example, shows that you listen. It also demonstrates that you view your client as an individual, rather than a case to be won.
The efforts you direct toward improving the quality of your client relationships will be rewarded in the form of satisfied customers, more positive reviews, and an increase in referral business. You'll also insulate yourself from inadvertent ethics violations involving neglect and lack of communication.
Communicate with your clients regularly. Use those interactions to listen and learn about your client’s goals, motivations, and concerns. That personal rapport deepens the relationship, but that's not all. It can also help you frame any difficult conversations you must have about the case.
Finally, don't overlook the importance of transparent, regular billing. To learn how LawPay can streamline your billing efforts and contribute to more complete invoices, schedule a demo today.