GPSOLO January/February 2008
My Pal Esquire
Lawyer-client relations of the past seemed simpler. The law was considered more a profession than a business, and lawyers comprised less of the general population. Solos and small firms were well integrated into their communities, with entrenched relationships through family and business, and megafirms did not exist. Things have changed. Lawyers in large and small law firms alike increasingly acknowledge that they must run their practices as businesses.
One element of running a law practice as a business is marketing to existing and former clients. For most types of practices, this segment provides a potential goldmine of future direct and referral business. After all, these people already hired you. But what if you’ve already finished their matter? Or what if you are providing them with long-term legal assistance that percolates below the surface for months at a time? How do you stay “top of mind” so that when a need arises, clients will think of you rather than another lawyer with whom they’ve had recent contact and whose phone number or e-mail address is close at hand? How do you let clients know you’re actively engaged in activities that are relevant to them and also have a distinct personality that makes you the person and lawyer you are?
Mining for Gold
Just because you are no longer having frequent case-related contact with your clients doesn’t mean you cannot have regular social contact with them. And even if you are still meeting regularly about their legal matter, social contact can help strengthen your relationship.
Clients will be particularly impressed when their lawyer inquires about how things are going in general, with no particular focus on business or existing matters. Although many methods of inquiry are available, the most effective are the most personal: A telephone call is best, a handwritten note is very good, and e-mails are appreciated; however, even a client satisfaction survey (which asks how you, rather than the clients, are doing) sends the message that you care and are there for the client.
If you learn of a significant event in your client’s life such as a marriage, birth of a child, death in the family, job promotion, or purchase of a new home, send an appropriate message. At the least, the client will appreciate your thoughtfulness. And it could lead to an enhanced sense of connection between lawyer and client.
Surveys show that the better the relationship between lawyer and client, the less likely the lawyer is to be sued by the client (the same has been demonstrated in the context of the doctor-patient relationship). Lawyers who are reticent about communicating with their clients are more likely to find themselves on the receiving end of a malpractice complaint. One of the best ways to enhance the attorney-client relationship is regular communication—not only regarding the matter at hand (which should go without saying, but all too often does not), but also more individualized communication bordering on or crossing over into the realm of the “personal.”
An issue for many lawyers centers on the appropriate level of friendship between attorney and client. We are not addressing here the overtly improper type of relationship about which judges end up writing justifiably castigating decisions, but rather what simply is comfortable under the circumstances. Much depends on the personalities involved, both yours and theirs. Some lawyers require professional distance, whereas others include some additional cordiality, and still others embrace personal friendships even where none existed at the inception of the relationship. Address head-on how you distinguish between billable and social communications. When a business conversation turns social, clients will appreciate your simple acknowledgement that you now are “off the clock.”
Out and About
Try meeting with your clients outside the office setting. The best principle here is simply to do what comes naturally. You cannot force the round peg of your personality through the square hole of a client relations technique that is abhorrent to you. It’s a venture that is doomed to failure.
Instead, think about the things that you like to do. Do you like to go fishing? Take a client, or several, either to a nearby river or tributary for some fly fishing, or out on a half-day deep sea chartered fishing boat angling for photo-worthy denizens of the salty depths. Do you appreciate fine classical music or dramatic theater? Include your clients. Are you a football or baseball fan? Garner an additional ticket or two for the big game. Do you have a taste for wine? Quaff with clients. Do you like to golf? Enough said.
Interestingly, even if your client does not share your interest in sailing, sculpture, Shostakovich, or soccer, you may find that you can introduce clients to new avenues that broaden their horizons, for which they may forever remember you fondly. And the reverse may occur as well, with your client reciprocating by inviting you to share an event in which you had no pre-existing interest. They could open your eyes to the benefits of tai chi, the intrigue of dinner mystery theater, the solitude of hiking nature trails, or the wonderful world of competitive basket weaving.
How best to determine which clients deserve your early attention? Ask yourself the following questions:
- Who are your five most important clients right now?
- Which five or ten past clients have not fired you but have not given you work in a while?
- Which clients have been giving you less work lately than in the past?
- Which clients have you not contacted recently?
These inquiries will help focus you toward staying on track with clients who need particular attention. Then determine the manner in which you feel most comfortable contacting them. This may take several different forms, depending on the client and the nature of your relationship: e-mail for some, a phone call for others, an event invitation for another, or a meeting for still others.
Doing what comes naturally to you encompasses many possible ways to undertake this notion of “marketing to existing clients” beyond the few already noted.
Include clients on your mailing list for your e-mailed or snail-mailed quarterly newsletter, or at least your periodic law firm printed announcements. If you don’t have a newsletter or periodic announcement, maybe just send a mass mailing once or twice a year, updating everyone in your contacts list about developments in your practice or life during the past six to 12 months—for example, additional areas of practice, opening of new offices, addition of new partners, hiring of new associates, completion of additional professional certification, description of significant or interesting new matters handled (consistent with client confidentiality strictures, or course), recent public-speaking engagements or publications of articles or books, and perhaps even some personal information such as the birth of a child, an interesting vacation trip taken, or the graduation from school of a family member.
Send holiday cards, but not in the same way everyone else does. Here are some useful variants that help you stand out from the crowd: Send pre-Thanksgiving cards instead of cards in mid-December along with everyone else; give a donation in the client’s honor to a charity that will send a card commemorating the gift; send birthday cards to clients—this takes a bit more work, including possibly some sleuthing, but it’s much more personal and has a greater impact. Numerous options exist on the web and via snail mail for making contact by card. You even can avail yourself of web-based ordering services that send individual personalized hard-copy greeting cards by mail if you prefer to work on the Internet but some of your clients may respond better to postal mail. For significant clients, you can up the ante and send a holiday or birthday gift along with the card, keeping in mind what might be appropriate under the circumstances: nothing too risqué or off-color, flamboyant, or otherwise of questionable taste. Refrain from sending that chartreuse pajama set. You and your client both will be glad you exercised restraint.
Send a useful personal message. If while reading you come across an article or blurb that you believe might be of interest to a client, clip out the newspaper or magazine article or forward the web link for the online article and send it, by snail mail or e-mail, with a short covering note to your client. Nowadays, the handwritten version of the note tends to have more impact, as it is uniquely personal, a rarity in the midst of the multitude of electronic communications. If the clipping turns out to be useful, the client will be grateful. Even if the article turns out to be merely of passing interest, you will have demonstrated to your clients that you are thinking about them and cared enough to take the time to perform the act. That alone will distinguish you from the multitudes of others and will help cement your bond with them. This also works well for prospects. This simple technique helps keep you “top of mind” for anyone for whom you want to be located precisely in that prominent position.
Although technically not necessarily a written communication, mailing to or presenting clients with promotional items such as logo-inscribed pens, notepads, key chains, refrigerator magnets, and more valuable giveaways similarly shows that you are thinking of them, and it also makes it more likely that they will have readily at hand your contact information should it be needed. Just how serious or whimsical or practical the giveaway item should or can be depends a lot on the nature of your practice and your personality.
Inviting clients to business networking events that you organize or attend yields mutual benefits. You create the opportunity to introduce them to others you know, reflecting your presumably broad and deep network of trusted professionals, making yourself more valuable to your clients. Similarly, invite clients to join groups to which you belong (e.g., chamber of commerce, Kiwanis, networking groups, not-for-profit boards of directors, local theater, and the like). You can welcome them into the fold, introduce them around, and further solidify your relationship while providing for yourself additional reason to attend the meetings of the group.
Even better, invite clients to your public-speaking engagements. You’re at the podium, in a position of prominence and expertise—a good light for your clients to see you in—and they may learn of additional services that you provide and that they or their colleagues need.
Invite the client to lunch for an hour of expressly non-billable time. Getting to know each other better builds a bond between lawyer and client. You may learn that you both are oenophiles, equestrians, or Trekkies, or that you share an interest in architecture, politics, horticulture, or extreme sports. Even if you end up talking about business for part of the time, it’ll likely also generate more billable hours down the road, as you may learn things about your client’s business or family or other circumstances that will require legal work. You also may learn about the client’s colleagues or relatives who might need your legal services, or about those who are professionals whom you might wish to develop as sources of referral business. There is no better way to cultivate such a relationship than to start off with a referral to that person, as they usually will want to reciprocate.
Invite yourself to the client’s place of business for a brief non-billable meeting. You may glean much just by seeing the client’s operations, which can enhance the quality of the services you provide and also may provide fodder for provision of additional services.
If you and your client are fellow alumni, attend a high school or college reunion together. This is a built-in bonding experience, and you also may learn that you have other friends or colleagues in common among fellow alumni.
Taking It to the Next Level
As your comfort level with a particular client increases, you even may decide to ask the client for referrals: others in the same industry, golfing buddies, employees, relatives, friends, neighbors. One of the most natural times to do this is when a client thanks you for or compliments you on the quality of your services. You then can express the desire to help others in the same way. There is nothing wrong with letting clients know you are accepting new matters. And you also may be able to provide referrals for your client, completing the symbiotic circle.
Note well the relevant ethical proscriptions in your jurisdiction. In New York, for example, the February 2007 amendments to the rules governing lawyer advertising (a concept that is broadly defined in 22 NYCRR Sec. 1200.1(k) to include a wide variety of lawyer-prospect communications) generally appear to permit “solicitation” of existing or prior clients, with some exceptions. (See generally 22 NYCRR Sec. 1200.8, and in particular, Sec. 1200.8(c)(5)(i); see also New York Code of Professional Responsibility DR 2-103.) These rules often are in flux and should be consulted periodically. For example, the February 2007 amendments in New York were invalidated in part by a judicial decision in July 2007. Your (and your state’s) mileage may vary.
Lawyers talk a lot about “exceeding client expectations,” almost exclusively in the context of the quality of the legal work provided. That is something that most clients are not equipped to assess meaningfully. However, clients do know when they are being ignored by their “trusted advisor,” so lawyers who seek to satisfy and ultimately market to their clients should strive to exceed client expectations in the realm of client communications. The resulting client affinity and appreciation is likely in turn to satisfy the lawyer with enhanced flow of future business referrals.
For those doubters who distinguish and draw a bright line between their friends and their clients, suggesting that never the twain shall meet, consider this: If you were to choose your clients more in the manner in which you choose your friends, you might have clients with whom you like to do business, and your practice might be more enjoyable, profitable, sustainable, and inspiring.
David J. Abeshouse practices business litigation and alternative dispute resolution law in Uniondale, Long Island, New York. His website is www.bizlawny.com, and he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.