GPSOLO December 2007
Using Technology to Keep Clients Happy
Technology has had a continual and growing impact on the practice of law and on each of us as practicing attorneys. During the last 25 years, the manner in which attorneys practice law has seen dramatic change. Likely the next 25 years will produce more and more significant changes. While the manner in which we practice evolves, the basic essence of the practice, its raison d’être, remains the same: to provide sound legal advice and counsel to our clients in order to help them deal with problems they encounter in their personal and business lives.
Many, if not most, discussions about the use of technology in the practice of law have focused on technology from the perspective of making the lawyer’s work easier or making the lawyer’s life a bit more pleasant. We have looked at the issue both from the perspective of how lawyers can make use of technology and the perspective of how lawyers let technology run away with itself and become a tool to abuse the attorneys. In this column we will look at the use of technology from a slightly different perspective; we will consider the use of technology to satisfy or please our clients while still allowing lawyers to have lives of their own outside of their practices.
New Tools for Communication
For as long as I can remember, malpractice or errors and omissions insurance carriers have made recommendations to attorneys about reducing exposure to claims. The carriers do not do this as a public service announcement (although, in fact, it can have the effect of one); they do it because it will help their own bottom line. If the lawyers they insure have fewer claims, insurance carriers will have less exposure to the costs of defending and settling claims. For that reason, and because common sense supports it, insurance carriers have stressed the importance of lawyers’ communicating adequately and sufficiently with their clients. The failure of lawyers to do so has proven to be one of the main reasons that clients end up filing claims against attorneys.
The changing nature of our society and the dramatically increased mobility afforded by technology impacts our practice of law as well as our personal lives. More and more attorneys have found ways to practice law on the road, at home, and in a variety of places where they do not have the facilities or support normally available to them in the traditional office environment. The farther we get from the traditional office situation and support, the harder one would traditionally find it to communicate adequately and sufficiently with clients. At first blush, it would seem that the more advantage lawyers take of the available technology to restructure their practices, if not their lives, the more risk they assume regarding clients made unhappy or simply not sufficiently informed as a result of insufficient communications. The trick becomes using technology to mitigate the problem.
I have had personal experience with clients expressing considerable gratitude for what they perceive as extra or special attention from their attorney. Timely, effective, and productive communications will help our clients develop such reactions.
Fortunately, technology makes it easier for us to communicate with our clients and to make those communications effective and productive. To ensure clarity, let me define my terms. I consider effective communications those that clearly convey necessary or appropriate information. I consider productive communications those that generate a positive benefit. A positive benefit, in this context, means a benefit that helps to avoid a problem or create a helpful or useful reaction or response. A timely communication responds to the client’s inquiry or conveys important information to a client promptly.
How can technology help us communicate better with our clients when we find ourselves (or intentionally take ourselves) out of the traditional office environment? Put another way, how can we use technology to facilitate timely, effective, and productive communications with our clients?
First, let’s address the issue of promptness. In today’s world we should have no problem promptly conveying information to a client. I cannot cite a study that establishes the percentage of practicing attorneys with cell phones, but I know of only a small handful that do not have and use them. Cell phones, although certainly subject to abuse, provide a wonderful tool to attorneys. A cell phone allows you to convert dead time to productive time, and in that productive time you can contact your office, pick up your phone messages, and return calls the same day you get them. I have heard about clients complaining that they cannot reach their attorney and about their attorney not returning phone calls. I have never heard of a client complaining that an attorney promptly returned a call! Yes, cell phones have issues, and you need to remind your client that a confidentiality breach might occur. Personally, I consider the risk of such a breach relatively minor, particularly with the encryption normally employed in cellular telephony. I do, however, recognize the risk and acknowledge the prudence of disclosure to the client. In fact, it may prove prudent to include such a disclosure/warning to the client in your representation agreement. That way the client knows the issue from the beginning of your relationship.
Cell phones also allow us to contact our clients to advise them of the results of important hearings the day they occur. Assuming that you had (as you should have) informed the client that a motion affecting her case would soon be heard, when do you think the client would like to know the outcome—the day of the hearing or a week later? Put yourself in your client’s shoes: Which would you prefer? Even if the court has simply taken the matter under consideration, the client will want to know. I have made it a practice to try to reach my clients by phone on the way back from court after a hearing to apprise them of what occurred. In all the years I have done that, I have never once had a client express unhappiness at learning the status sooner, rather than later. I have often had clients thank me for the consideration of letting them know the outcome so promptly.
Access to Documents
Recognizing the importance of a document trail, attorneys should confirm such conversations with a letter. Using a digital dictation device allows the attorney to easily and quickly dictate a confirming letter. The attorney can have the letter transcribed and sent within a day, even if the attorney does not return to the office that day. The attorney can transmit the electronic file to a secretary or to a transcription service by upload or e-mail. An air card (cellular modem) used with a laptop can achieve DSL speeds in most urban locations. It provides the attorney with both connectivity and the ability to efficiently transmit the information. If an attorney dictates a letter after the close of business in his or her office, the attorney can transmit the file to one of the many third-party transcription services and receive the letter back as a Word or WordPerfect document. If the attorney has created or obtained an electronic image version of the firm’s letterhead (or carries letterhead around when outside of the office), the attorney can print the letter and mail it from almost anywhere. An electronic version of the firm’s letterhead will also allow the attorney to e-mail the letter to the client (preferably as a PDF file) to protect the letter, to make it easy to retain a copy locked to the same letterhead image as the letter sent, and to allow the client ready access to the document (almost everyone has PDF reader software, downloadable for free at www.adobe.com). Most attorneys will find it easier and more efficient to have electronic letterhead and electronic pleading paper in their laptops.
Effective communications require the correct transmittal of necessary information. While at times a client may pose an inquiry that an attorney can answer without doing any research or investigation, often responding to a client’s question will require some research or referring to a document that the attorney has in the file or that the client will transmit. If the client e-mails the document to the attorney, the electronic transmittal makes it available to the attorney whenever the attorney chooses to access it. If the client transmits a document in hard copy form or by facsimile, scanning it into a PDF file allows transmitting the document immediately to the attorney electronically. If the attorney or the office staff scans all documents in the file into electronic format as they come into the office, the attorney can carry the file in a laptop and/or on a small external hard disk drive and have access to the contents of the file at almost any time. (Of course, if the attorney receives the inquiry after hours, the absence of anyone in the office to scan and e-mail the document will prevent the attorney from reviewing it until a later time.) Similarly, the air cards discussed above will give the lawyer the ability to access Lexis-Nexis and/or Westlaw or other legal research databases at virtually any time. These capabilities allow a lawyer to satisfy clients’ needs while out of town on business (or pleasure) or simply out of the office.
In terms of productive communications, a timely response to a question will evoke a positive reaction from most clients, even if the answer is something that they do not want to hear. If, for whatever reason, you cannot address the issue immediately, take the time to make a call or send an e-mail acknowledging receipt of the question and advising that you will do the necessary research or investigation and get back to the client promptly with a response. Prompt attention will go a long way toward convincing clients that you are doing a good job for them. Remember, your clients do not know that you cannot get to their work the instant that they transmit it to you—unless you tell them. Clients like to think you will attend to their matters promptly, if not immediately. By promptly calling clients to let them know that you will get back to them tomorrow or within a day or two, rather than waiting to speak to them until you have an answer in hand, you avoid the possibility of their interpreting your lack of communication as a lack of interest. You provide them a realistic time frame, so that producing as agreed makes you look good and producing early makes you a hero.
A word of caution: Don’t write checks that bounce. Calling your clients to say that you will get back to them tomorrow and then failing to do so will undoubtedly prove counterproductive. Don’t create a false expectation that puts your credibility at risk.
Jeffrey Allen is the principal in the Graves & Allen law firm in Oakland, California. A frequent speaker on technology topics, he is the special issue editor of GPSOLO ’s Technology & Practice Guide and editor-in-chief of the Technology eReport . He holds faculty positions at California State University of the East Bay and the University of Phoenix and is a member of the Law Society of England and Wales and a Solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.