October 01, 2019 Feature

Can You Hear Me Now? Client Communications in the 21st Century

Teresa Matich

For today’s law firm, communication has never been more important. People are used to instantly communicating over a myriad of apps—they’re also used to immediate, clear answers to any questions they might have with a quick search on the Internet. When people have legal needs, they also have high expectations for the way law firms communicate with them.

Communication issues
are a main cause of
malpractice claims.

Communication issues are a main cause of malpractice claims.

But client communications continue to be problematic for many law firms—especially with communications issues being a main cause of malpractice claims. This article will explore the disconnect between what clients expect and what law firms are doing, and it will offer solutions for how law firms might improve client communications in the 21st century.

Client Communications Breakdown

The latest malpractice claims fact sheets from LAWPRO show client communications as a significant driver of malpractice claims for almost every practice area. Communication issues account for 40 percent or more of reported errors for family law, criminal law, corporate law, and immigration law. For employment law, communications errors account for 31 percent of claims.

Why do so many communication issues arise between lawyers and their clients? There are a few potential causes—one is that lawyers are simply too busy to communicate clearly and often. According to the 2018 Legal Trends Report, 75 percent of lawyers work outside of regular business hours often or always, and 39 percent say this negatively affects their personal life. Meanwhile, lawyers are only logging 2.4 billable hours per day on average. The rest of their time goes toward a range of daily administrative tasks, everything from managing staff, to networking, to preparing and sending invoices.

Providing clear, regular updates to clients on their cases is important and should be prioritized—but that’s on a long list of other tasks on a lawyer’s plate.

Another possible explanation is the way that client expectations have changed in recent years.

The client experience has always been important. If someone visits a dentist whose staff is rude, or if the dental work performed doesn’t match the invoice, that customer likely won’t recommend the dentist to friends and family. The same goes for lawyers and law firms: In an industry where word of mouth is gold, legal professionals need to provide great client experiences to gain positive reviews and referrals.

Today, when it comes to what defines a “good” client experience, legal consumers are having their expectations raised in other arenas—and that’s translating back to legal. Clients have come to expect the same instant service and satisfaction they get from Amazon, Netflix, and Apple from their legal provider as well. And in an age where there are plenty of options for the alternative delivery of legal services, those clients will take their business elsewhere if lawyers don’t deliver the experience they seek.

Knowing What Your Clients Really Want

Being even more diligent about case updates and ensuring crystal-clear communication might seem like a tall order for law firms that are already spread thin. However, if law firms can take a client-centered approach, focus on what their clients really want, and leverage technology to streamline the way they communicate with clients, they’ll do more than just avoid malpractice claims. They’ll be able to drastically improve their client communications and succeed in the 21st century.

Today’s lawyer has more options than ever to communicate effectively with clients to provide a better experience while also streamlining their internal operations, but success doesn’t come from shiny tools alone. Law firms first need to think of what their clients want, and how they’d use a given solution to solve for their clients’ needs, before they can implement a solution correctly and improve client communications.

Part of this is about choosing the best medium for each communication need. Most lawyers don’t accurately predict how their clients want to communicate in a given situation. For example, we know from the 2018 Legal Trends Report that 55 percent of clients want to learn about the legal aspects of their case in person, while only 2 percent of lawyers think this is the case. Also, 46 percent of clients want to get quick questions answered over the phone, while only 22 percent of lawyers think this is the case.

By keeping these insights in mind, and by speaking to clients to get insight into what works best for their own clients and practices (every firm and every client is different, after all), law firms can start to make changes in the ways they communicate with clients and set themselves up for success in the modern era.

Four Modern Communication Methods to Explore

With the above in mind, here are a few modern ways that law firms can communicate with their clients.

1. Texting. For minor updates or quick questions, texting can be a useful option for communicating with legal clients—especially if this is how clients prefer to communicate. There’s no need to worry about opening yourself up to a barrage of middle-of-the-night texts from clients, either: With tools such as Zipwhip, you can text clients from an existing business number and keep your own phone number separate.

It’s even better if you use practice management software, as several of these tools will integrate directly with the technology. All client communications that happen over text will be kept organized according to every case—right alongside e-mails, letters, and everything else.

2. Videoconferencing. Videoconferencing isn’t just for the boardroom anymore. For routine updates, check-ins, or high-level conversations, videoconferencing can be a suitable replacement for meeting in person. Depending on your practice area, this could save your client from making a lengthy commute or going out and about if they’re suffering from a workplace injury, for example.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that there’s no need to meet in person. There will be times where meeting face-to-face is preferable, if possible. But if you’re open to the idea that meeting over video might actually provide a better experience, you could save yourself and your clients a lot of time.

Just ensure you use a secure video service with end-to-end encryption, such as the Signal app from Open Whisper Systems. This will ensure that all client communications and information are kept confidential.

3. Client portals. Client portals add an extra layer of security to client communications. They can be used to share information, send documents, and even invoice clients.

How do client portals work? One party adds a message or shares a document via the secure platform, and the other receives an e-mail notification that a secure message is waiting. The second party will then need to log in to see the document or message.

Client portals can also help make client communications more efficient. For example, you could allow clients to access their own case information through a secure client portal so that they can get updates on their case on their own at any time. This helps clients feel empowered and also cuts down on time-intensive back-and-forth communications.

4. Automated communications. Good and clear client communication doesn’t always have to mean picking up the phone or typing out a bespoke e-mail every time you need to give an update to a client. When done right, automated communications can do the job just fine.

For example, when you onboard a new client to your firm, you may want to set up an automated welcome e-mail that explains your billing policies and sets expectations for how often to expect updates on a case. A solution such as Clio Grow can help here. This will help put your clients at ease and will also reduce the workload on your firm’s staff by ensuring clients are informed up front so there are fewer calls about administrative questions throughout each case.

There are situations where automated communications aren’t the best route. If you’re delivering bad news or explaining legal information that requires a client to make an informed decision, that’s definitely not the time to send a form e-mail or automated update. But in many cases, automated communications can provide peace of mind and head off misunderstandings about routine law firm processes without adding significantly to your staff’s daily workload.

A Note on Security

No matter which new methods of communication your firm explores, there’s a table-stakes requirement to follow security best practices to ensure client confidentiality is upheld in all things.

There are technical requirements, such as ensuring channels are properly encrypted, using strong passwords, and doing due diligence on the tools you use. But it’s also important to be aware of softer security best practices, such as being mindful when working in public areas (e.g., sit with your back to the wall in coffee shops and be extra careful in situations where others can see your screen) and being mindful of who you connect with and what you post on social media. An awareness of the modern landscape for client communications will set your firm up for success.

Giving Modern Clients the Service They Expect

When communicating with clients in the 21st century, the key is to keep client expectations top-of-mind. But in addition to being mindful of how and how often clients would like to communicate, there’s another way that law firms can provide better experience—by being the ones to introduce clients to more efficient communication methods, rather than just waiting to hear what their clients want.

By introducing clients to new ways of communicating, law firms can provide the updates and peace of mind clients crave, provide great experiences, and reduce overhead for themselves at the same time.

A few ideas can be found in the 2018 Legal Trends Report. For example, according to the report, 59 percent of clients prefer to book appointments with their law firm over the phone rather than any other method. If this rings true for you, there may be an opportunity to educate your clients on the value of self-service scheduling with tools such as Calendly or Acuity. This cuts down on a lot of the back-and-forth that comes with appointment scheduling and makes the whole process a little more painless for both firms and clients.

Modern clients expect better communication from their law firms, but they may not always articulate what that looks like or share that feedback directly with their lawyers. By putting themselves in their clients’ shoes to choose communication methods that will best solve the pain points (i.e., by taking a client-centered approach), law firms will more accurately deliver on what clients are expecting. And again, in many cases, this also leads to more efficient internal processes, creating benefits for staff, lawyers, and law firms overall as well.

Take, for example, the Hite Law Group, a firm focused on family, juvenile, and immigration law in New Orleans, Louisiana. Nicholas Hite’s clients can check in on their matter whenever they like using a client portal (Clio Connect). This means less client follow-up for Nicholas, and that’s one reason he can keep his operating costs affordable and help more people while also running a profitable practice.

Additionally, Nicholas says that for clients facing emotionally charged situations, being able to have a degree of control over the information they’re getting about their case can be extremely empowering and helpful when navigating difficult experiences. (For more, see "How Nicholas Hite Manages 160 Open Cases With Clio.")

Communications errors may still be a leading cause of malpractice claims, but it doesn’t have to be that way. By taking the time to explore new communication methods that may help firms keep clients informed more efficiently, lawyers can unlock new client relations processes that will help them thrive in the modern era.

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Teresa Matich is the editor of the Clio Blog (clio.com/blog) and the co-producer of Clio’s Matters podcast (clio.com/podcast). She’s an experienced legal tech writer and editor, having interviewed dozens of practicing lawyers and leading legal industry thinkers, including Preet Bharara and Bryan Stevenson. More of her articles can be found at clio.com. Follow her on Twitter at @teresamatich.