One of the top complaints that are reported to professional governing boards of lawyers is a lack of communication from their attorney. Communication, or the lack thereof, therefore, is either a huge opportunity or a huge liability. It’s important to develop a strategy around communication to not only guard your practice, but most importantly to provide the best experience for your clients.
We’re not able as family law attorneys to predict outcomes with full certainty. What we can do, is manage client expectations and educate them throughout their process to give them back any sense of control they feel they are losing. Orienting communication is vital in every step of the process.
- Set the tone early in the initial contact. By the time someone makes the phone call to a lawyer to discuss potential options, they’re likely already going through difficult emotions, or stages of grief. They’re not quite themselves, and they’re experiencing the fear of the unknown. Clients have no idea what lies on the other side of litigation. They may sound pleasant enough on the phone, but it’s important for you or your team to be cognizant of what may have happened to lead up to making the phone call or initial contact. Clients respond well to affirmation that they’ve called the right place for their type of case, and accommodation in finding what makes the consultation the most beneficial to the client. The person responsible for the initial contact needs to reaffirm that your office is absolutely the right place to call in that situation, and ask what can be done to accommodate that particular client. Any friction at this stage can cost you potential business. Potential clients need to be told where to go for the consultation, and what they can expect when they get there. Management of expectations has already begun.
- Use orienting communication to educate and empower potential clients. As part of the consultation, communication should be intentional. Active listening is crucial, and an often underestimated and under-developed skill. Clients need to know that you have heard them. This enables the client to trust you and like you. A consultation is an opportunity to identify the main goals of the client and discuss the options, and allowing the client to regain a feeling of empowerment and control. Setting an initial outline in the beginning of a consultation is helpful so that the potential client knows what can be gained from the consultation. Once you determine their goals, you may begin to discuss potential options. This is a chance to promote your services, and present yourself as their best legal option.
- Keep the client oriented throughout the entire process. It’s easy for us family law attorneys to forget how little clients know, down to the details or where the courthouse is and where to park, what time to be there, etc. It is a comfort to clients to know where to be, who and what to bring with them, how to dress, and how to address the court if necessary. It’s not insulting to assume they don’t know these things. When clients are not worrying about the small details, the logistics, they have the emotional resources to focus on weighing the options their attorney presents in a more rational process. They will perform better upon questioning and in negotiations because the basics have been covered.
The client also needs to be oriented to what’s normal, and what’s not. If the attorney or staff forwards on an offer or demand letter with no context, this leaves the client seeking advice elsewhere- from family, friends, coworkers. And we all know how that turns out, don’t we? Develop a protocol with your staff to determine how various pleadings and correspondence are presented to a client, and what additional expertise and information you can share with them about these documents.
Finally, clients need their options communicated to them. Long gone are the days where clients were told how they would be resolving their issues, and where attorneys drove the clients straight into the most contentious litigation. The rising trend is toward a more collaborative approach in family law matters, allowing the client to have more control over the future of their family. The use of the word “option” in itself is an example of orienting communication, so that the client understands it is their choice whether to accept or reject this option. Again, you’re giving them back control. They need to be made aware of the pros and cons of each option, and this is your chance to shine.
When communication is approached with intentionality from the beginning of a case and through every step, the client is guided through an uncomfortable process and expectations are managed. Managed expectations are a shield from less than ideal outcomes of litigation, and from client complaints and negative word of mouth advertising.