Law Practice Magazine
ABA TECHSHOW TECHNOLOGY TIPS ISSUE
Communications breakdowns cause a lot of trouble for lawyers—it’s one of the biggest factors leading to malpractice claims. Easy-to-use technology tools combined with commonsense business practices can help keep you in touch and improve client service and communications.
The lawyer-client relationship, like so many things in life, all comes down to communication. Lawyers have an ethical duty to keep clients informed about the status of their matters, as well as promptly comply with requests for information. Despite this, failures to communicate are one of the most common causes of discipline complaints and malpractice claims. To stay out of trouble, you should strive to communicate more often and more effectively with your clients. All sorts of technology tools can help you do this.
Showing clients that you are truly serving them well means demonstrating that you are staying on top of their matters. You should know—or at least be able to quickly look up—the status of a matter at any given point in time. And, of course, you also need to meet deadlines and follow up on things as required or promised. There is no better tool for doing this than practice management software.
There are a number of options on the market, such as Amicus Attorney, PracticeMaster, TimeMatters, ProLaw and others. These products let you manage client and case information, including contacts, calendaring, documents and other
specifics, by facilitating automation of the wealth of information in your law practice.
Remember to use your program’s report function to create an instant summary of activity on client files, either on a monthly basis or for inclusion in reporting letters.
From your clients’ point of view, the most memorable communication from you will not be one of the numerous e-mails or faxes you send, or the many phone conversations or meetings you have with them. It will be your bill for services rendered. (Remember that special feeling you get every time you receive a bill?)
Make your most memorable form of communication more informative with these tips:
• Use software to create effective, professional-looking invoices that clients can easily decipher. Practice management and time-and-billing programs are great for this.
• Provide reasonably descriptive time entries that will help remind clients of all the work done on their behalves.
• Prepare a complete reporting letter for the client, for interim accounts and especially for final accounts.
Client relationship management (CRM) applications take matter
management and client communication to the next level. Some practice management software programs have built-in CRM functionality. Others integrate with stand-alone CRM programs such as Act! or Interaction. Still others, like ContactEase, are designed to integrate with Microsoft Outlook.
CRM programs allow lawyers to leverage what everyone throughout the firm knows about a client—contact information, current or past matters handled, personal information (such as birthdays and anniversaries) and other related information. Armed with this information, you can then act on it. Even something as seemingly simple as a birthday card will go a long way in creating a personal, more trusting relationship with a client (even if a little software “birdie” did the reminding).
While CRM software is often considered a client development tool, remember that existing clients are usually your best source of new clients. So use your technology to keep tabs on them and keep them happy at the same time!
It’s nice to be able to check voice mail and return calls via cell phone while you are out of the office. But real boons for today’s busy lawyers are the truly “smart” phones like the BlackBerry, Treo, Apple iPhone, Palm Centro and others. These devices allow real-time e-mail, calendar and contacts, Web browsing, document access and more. (See the article on page 32 to learn how you can rev them up with third-party software and add-ons.) They let you be more responsive to clients from nearly anywhere at anytime. And as their popularity has increased, the costs to buy and operate these devices have become quite reasonable.
Even if you’re tied down elsewhere, you can send a quick acknowledgement to your clients that their e-mails or document attachments have been received and a fuller response is being crafted—this will go far to helping the client realize that while you are currently away from your office, you are still on top of the case.
But a caution here: Mobile technology can create work-life balance issues. There is nothing wrong with being responsive—but 24-7, a full 365 days a year is beyond the call of duty. You have many matters to work on, and you need some downtime, too. So set and control clients’ expectations about your availability—and how and when they can communicate with you.
Web conferencing tools let you hold real-time online meetings with clients and others when time and distance prohibit an in-person discussion. And with all the bells and whistles that are built into online conferencing services today, you can do just about everything you can do at an in-person meeting.
The most popular productsin this category are WebEx, GoToMeeting) and Acrobat Connect. They offer many different options, including voice and video communications, document review and collaboration, desktop sharing, whiteboards, presentation capabilities and more.
Many of these services also provide “always on” capability, meaning that a Web conference can be held at a moment’s notice, versus having to preschedule the meeting.
These services seldom require more than an Internet connection, a telephone and a subscription. This is just so much more elegant than sending documents back and forth via e-mail, and you can save time and money by getting immediate consensus from everyone present.
Extranets are another way to give clients access to documents and work product for their review, approval and collaboration. If you’re not familiar with the term, an extranet is essentially an online document repository that allows access to files and folders based on password authentication. To keep costs down, though, most small firms will want to opt for one of the extranet hosting services, rather than taking this on in-house.
You may use a clipping service to keep up with legal news or cases, but what about being able to “auto-magically” receive and forward client-related news or information? There are several free tools that can help you proactively communicate with clients on this level.
For one, you can create free Google Alerts to receive e-mail notices every time any instance of a client’s name or industry appears in the news or on the Web. You can set up alerts for any search terms or phrases related to your key clients. You then send the links you receive to your clients, letting them know you saw the items and thought the news might be of interest to them. This will show your dedication to keeping them abreast of breaking information that is relevant to them. For a nominal monthly fee, the more powerful GoogleAlert lets you do more.
Similarly, free services like Google Notebook and Ask.com’s MyStuff allow you to share informational links with clients, rather than e-mailing the links. Simply set up a topical folder of interest to the client, share the folder with the client, then add article links and annotations to the folder and, voilá, the client can view the shared folder, which points to the headline, the link and the annotation you provide. This type of activity is easy and proactive and helps clients feel like their lawyer is truly their advocate. (See the next page for more Google tools you can put to use in your practice.)
When it comes to communication, listening is just as important as talking. In other words, you must remember to stop, look and actively listen to your clients at all stages of a matter. An end-of-the-matter client satisfaction survey can be especially helpful. This is very easy and inexpensive using online survey tools such as SurveyMonkey and Zoomerang.
Gathering data about the success of communication and representation, regardless of the outcome of the matter, helps establish whether the client’s needs were met. By carefully reviewing any negative feedback you get, you can learn how and where to make improvements in your client communication and services. Establishing and meeting expectations regarding communication methods and frequency is a giant step in ensuring clients are satisfied with your representation of them. Plus, an informed and happy client will be far less likely to sue you for malpractice. So dive in and use technology to enhance your client service and communication today.
Catherine Sanders Reach is Director of the American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center.