How to Establish and Manage Client Relationships

Vol. 31 No. 4

By

Sharon Meit Abrahams, EdD, is national director, professional development, with Foley & Lardner LLP, Miami, Florida. She is co-author of 100 Plus Pointers for Business Development (ABA, 2013).

The more the practice of law changes owing to technology, client demands, and the economy, the more it stays the same at its core. It’s all about the clients. Without clients, there would be no mega-firms, much less small or solo practices. The competition between the mega firms will continue to be fierce, which is why your time is now. It’s your time to find, establish, manage, and grow your client base while the large firms duke it out. The following are strategies for you to follow when you have a ready prospect willing to sign your engagement letter.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

You do have an engagement letter, right?

Your engagement letter is your first opportunity to establish a healthy client relationship. From the very first step, you and your client need to be on the same page about everything. There should be a clear understanding of the scope of the work and what to do when that scope appears to be widening. Jonathan Groff, a personal injury attorney in Miami, Florida, says, “We walk them through every paper they sign, including the retainer agreement. . . . For all clients, my objective is to establish trust.”

Talk to your client about his or her needs for updates. Will you send daily, weekly, or monthly reports, and how will those be sent? Via e-mail, snail mail, or telephone? Be clear on who should be part of the communication chain. Does the client want copies sent to the COO, the CFO, or anyone else? If it is a relatively large client, you might consider a meeting every six months to review status and discuss whether the matter is progressing as expected. A failure to communicate can lead to a vast array of unwanted and unnecessary problems.

Talking about fees is your opportunity to demonstrate your value, so do not shy away or avoid this conversation. Hit it straight on. Explain why you are worth your hourly rate by cataloging the years of experience you have or the number of matters you have handled that are identical or similar. Highlight a particular specialty you have that will directly benefit the client. Compare your rates to others while detailing the value-added approach you will demonstrate. Let them know what is included in the fees and be clear about other charges that are separate from the fee so there is no fussing over the bill.

Be clear on who is doing what for this matter and on future ones as well. Outline for clients what (if any) role they will have in producing documents, dealing with third parties, or paying costs directly to vendors. This level of detail adds to a relationship because all parties are marching to the same tune and know what is expected of them. If it helps, draw it out in a chart or other visual format so everyone “sees” who is committed to what.

By communicating on a regular basis, you have a higher chance of eliminating surprises for the client. These might be billing surprises for document reviews that have run amok or changes of personnel on a matter because your prize paralegal left the firm. By letting your clients know as far in advance as you can, you prepare them for changes that might or might not affect their work. Better to over-communicate in these situations than under-communicate.

You have heard this plenty of times, but it’s true: Respond promptly. With modern technology, the expected response time is “immediately.” Clients assume that you are available 24/7 and that they take priority (which they do), but you can control the situation by simply acknowledging receipt of the e-mail or voice mail. If you are unable to respond, ask your assistant or paralegal to get back to the client. Do not worry about having an answer at this point, just let them know you are “on it,” which gives the client confidence in you.

A word of caution is in order about communicating via social media. An online presence will help build your reputation and identify you as a “thought leader,” but be aware of the applicable ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, as well as the rules and opinions from your state bar. Be proactive by looking at the resources available through the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center (tinyurl.com/43qovec) and ABA Law Practice Division (lawpractice.org). Be conscientious about what you communicate on Facebook and post on LinkedIn; the whole world has access to this information. Text messaging is good for quick communication with family and friends, but never put a client communication in a text.

Learn Everything You Can

Start building a file on your client—not a dossier of critical business data (that comes next), but a file about your client’s personal likes and dislikes. Jot down notes about his or her family, hobbies, vacation hot spots, and anything else you can gather. Learn what makes your client tick. Is this client surrounded by “yes” men and women, or does the client like to get his or her hands dirty? Does the client like challenges and problem solving, or does the client prefer to be told only good news and how someone else solved the problem? What drives the client: Is it fear of failure or company demise? Does your client think he or she knows everything and so is not really looking for your input other than to solve the immediate legal needs?

Become familiar with one of the many social style assessment tools available to help you gauge your client’s communication preferences. For example, the “I-Speak Your Language” assessment product available through Lee Hecht Harrison (lhh.com) categorizes people according to communication styles such as “feeler,” “intuitor,” “senser,” and “thinker.” By reading books and materials, taking surveys, and understanding that we are all wired differently, you will be able to relate to your client in a unique and individualized manner. Once you identify your client’s style, you will be able to build a cohesive relationship.

Now that you know lots of details about your client personally, it’s time to learn even more about your client’s business. You can start by doing research online, and if you have access to paid research engines such as Lexis or Westlaw, use those as well. David Levinson, a Massachusetts attorney, notes in his criminal practice that, unfortunately, “there is plenty of information available through the social networks or newspapers to learn something about my client.” Be sure to review past information as well as current to see if there are patterns or some history that is relevant to the current situation. Explain to clients that you want to learn more about their business so you can better serve them. Ask for financial information, annual reports, and any other internal publications. Review everything and ask your client questions about what you’ve learned. Show genuine interest, and the client will be happy to share even more.

Inquire if you can meet other members of the management team. By speaking with other leaders, you will learn more about issues, concerns, and possible areas of further legal services. Ask to attend strategic planning meetings to learn the short- and long-term goals of the company. Plan a facilities tour or plant walk-through, and talk to the employees you meet to gain more insight into the business. The more people you meet in a company, the more chances you have to build relations that lead to deeper ties. By learning the ins and outs of the company, you become part of the leadership team.

One of the key things to pick up when you are learning about a client and his or her company is the values of the individual and the company. Ask if the company has a statement of core values and memorize them. Use that language when you counsel your clients so you demonstrate that you are aligned with their values. For example, one client might value innovation and social conscientiousness while another might value cost reduction and increased shareholder value. Work these themes into your service plan for the client.

Next, focus on the client’s industry as a whole. Read everything you can find, from trade journals to direct competitors’ information. Attend industry meetings and conferences with your client. Set up online alerts to notify you of events that affect that industry. Keep up with any regulatory changes that might directly or indirectly affect your client. Use competitive intelligence experts to do a “deep dive” into the industry. Patricia Ellard, a competitive intelligence manager for an international firm, recommends reaching out to organizations such as the Association of Independent Information Professionals (AIIP), which can connect you with freelance experts to do research on your behalf. It is amazing what these experts can find that we cannot. When you demonstrate depth and breadth of knowledge in their industry, clients will have more trust in your services.

Add Value

It might seem silly to say, but one of the greatest values you can bring to your clients is honesty. Honesty in what the legal fees might be for their matter. Honesty in how you think the outcome will be for their matter. Honesty with your opinion about the decisions they make about their matter. Honesty when you screw up. Your clients want to trust and depend on you; being honest, even when it hurts, increases your value to them. Mark L. Freyberg from the Freyberg Law Group in New York says his honesty and credibility come from “letting clients know the weaknesses of the case.”

Be the clients’ legal authority on all issues. By becoming your clients’ trusted advisor, you have created a relationship that will transcend your practice knowledge because they know you will find the right person to help in all situations. Luis Salazar, a bankruptcy attorney in south Florida, says that to become a trusted advisor, “you have to deliver giant fistfuls of immediate responsiveness to inquiries and assignments . . .” and show “a genuine personal interest in your client contact.” A trusted advisor relationship will provide a steady stream of work over a long period of time and will continue even if the client changes jobs.

One of the ways to add value through your trusted advisor role is to get in front of the client constantly with ideas that lead to efficiency, cost reduction, and revenue enhancement. Think beyond the legal issues and focus on the client’s business issues. Offer to actively participate in strategy sessions and attend board meetings so you can demonstrate your level of commitment.

Provide education to your clients so they experience your level of knowledge in a new and refreshing manner. Most client training sessions are for the legal team, but think outside the box and look to do programs for the CFO’s team, the human resources staff, the sales force, or the IT department. Look toward industry trends to develop a program that helps your client prepare for changes or avoid potential problems.

Ruth Carter, an intellectual property and business lawyer in Arizona, says she adds value “by making resources available through the firm’s blog and social media platforms.” This exemplifies your role as an ongoing source of information to your clients. Let your clients know that you are a thought leader by posting articles and white papers that directly impact your clients’ company or industries. Sending clients timely e-mails with content they can use shows them you are thinking about them.

A client will see you as a vital resource when you act as a personal networking agent. Look through your contact list to make introductions that could lead to opportunities. These can range from monetary investors to suppliers to real estate—really anything you can imagine. By bringing people together, you demonstrate again that you can add value to your client.

The final way to demonstrate added value is to truly prove you have added value. In this new legal environment, we hear a lot about legal project management (LPM). LPM, which stems from the construction and engineering fields, means nothing more than managing projects more efficiently and cost effectively. Clients now expect their attorneys to have business acumen and to provide their services at the highest value. By using the principles of LPM—understanding the project scope, project planning, cost control, resources allocation, communication, and risk management—you will be able to exhibit the true value of legal work. As corporate legal departments are more focused on cost containment, it behooves you to learn how to implement LPM.

You Can Do It

A key element of your success will be training anyone who works with you, from your secretary to your paralegals and associates, if you have them. These individuals, often the first point of contact, interact with your clients and reflect your practice philosophy. Take the time to teach them how to answer the phone, how respond when you are away, and how to take a message. Teach them to ask the clients how they are that day, if there is anything they can do to help in your absence, and to show a genuine interest in the client as a person. All these little things reflect positively on you.

Getting the prospect to your door is the hardest part; now it’s your job to establish and maintain a client relationship that will deepen over the years. Anyone can be an excellent client manager by taking assertive action. Think of picking up the book Emotion Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves (2009), which will give you steps to improve your relationships with clients as well as others. Read the classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (1936) to pick up tips that you can apply to current client situations. There are myriad books, videos, and YouTube clips that can help you be a better relationship manager. You simply must decide to do it.

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