So, while there’s no magic formula, what I can impart are the techniques that work for me and that I have seen work for others. I’ve taught these techniques to former mentees, interns, and friends.
Remember That Your Clients Are Humans First and Clients Second
I say your clients are humans first and clients second in the context of communication, not legal fiduciary duties. When you first look up your client, you’ll see their position. Perhaps they’re a CEO with more than 20 years of experience in their field. Perhaps their profile picture is of them in an expensive suit. Their LinkedIn profile or website bio lists many degrees, personal and professional achievements, and maybe even books written. They may be extremely wealthy, extremely powerful, or both.
Naturally, we look at the client and see all the differences between us. These differences in power, status, and wealth may cause feelings of anxiety. In a law firm setting, they may be a very important client, and your partner is reminding you not to upset this client.
The simplest way to address the apprehension of talking to clients is to remember that they are human. Picture them doing an activity you consider normal. I like to imagine everyone in tie-dye; I’ve never met anyone angry or rude dressed in tie-dye. If you’re a parent, imagine them waking up at 3 a.m. to change a diaper and then have the diaper explode on them. That has happened to every parent, and it’s gross, hilarious, and a common human experience. The goal is to refocus your perspective from differences to commonalities. This first step is meant to lower your anxiety and stress when thinking about talking to your client.
Recognize That Commonalities Are the Key to Conversation
Once you get past your initial anxiety, you may wonder how to have a conversation with your client that isn’t just an immediate rundown of your legal advice. Your advice is the focus in that scenario, and there is very little human connection. That may be fine in some scenarios, but building a relationship is key if your goal is to have the client remember you.
Relationships are built in small steps over a long period. Just think of any lasting relationship you have in your personal life. How did it start? How many conversations or shared experiences did you have before that person landed squarely in your “I want to keep in contact” category? I’ve known my best friend for years: we met in the workplace and started our relationship because we both liked soccer. It was a small commonality, but we built on it, and now, after many years, we cherish our differences.
For one executive client I had while in-house, I noticed his office had a picture of a fantasy football trophy, and so I asked him about it. He then told me the story of his triumphant fantasy football year and also recommended I watch the show The League. Years later, he became a steadfast supporter and champion. The bottom line is to find commonalities with your client, even something small. Ask questions, not a ton, but whatever feels natural. Generally, people love to share what interests them.
This may be the hardest of the techniques, as it requires self-awareness and active listening. I still make assumptions to this day, but at least I can now recognize when I’ve done so and course correct over the long term. Don’t assume the client is upset about talking to you instead of your partner. Don’t assume the client will be happy with your legal advice or that the client will take your legal advice without any pushback or questions. Don’t assume the client will act or sound a certain way because of how they look. Go into the conversation open-minded and ready to learn about them, their goals, and their business.
Speak with Clarity and Confidence
At its core, your client calls you because they have a need, and you have been tasked with meeting it. Your client is likely paying you by the hour and has an incredibly busy schedule. They want and need your advice, but if receiving it takes too long because of long-winded rambling or because they can’t understand your advice when it’s delivered in a circular and inconsistent manner, your client will not be satisfied.
If you’ve done your diligence and prepared for the call, your goal should be to deliver your advice with calm confidence. You may know the answer, but you are undermining yourself if you deliver it as a question or in an unsure and nervous voice. Don’t let questions shake your confidence. Every client will ask you questions. Answer their questions and ask your own. If there is a way to meet their goal without legal issues, you may not discover that solution without learning more about their goal or problem. Over time, if you’ve built a strong client relationship, your client will come to you for solutions and want to meet their business goals in a legally compliant manner.
Don’t Fake It ‘Til You Make It
This may be an unpopular opinion, but don’t fake it until you make it when talking to your client, especially not when answering their questions or giving legal advice. People can tell. Most people are naturally intuitive, and a client, especially a business professional, is often adept at reading people. They’ll trust their gut feeling on whether you are guessing at an answer. They may not know exactly what you aren’t 100 percent confident in, but they will feel that something is off, and you may not recover from that initial judgment. So, if you don’t know the answer, be honest and remain confident and calm.
If a client asks me a question, and I don’t know the answer, I usually say, “I can’t answer you with full confidence right now, but give me some time to get my initial thoughts fully researched, and I’ll come back to you.” One client told me it was a test because there’s no way anyone would know the answer without knowing certain aspects of his company’s history.
These techniques aren’t earth-shattering. That’s the whole point. Anyone, no matter how early in their career, can talk to a client. There is no specific number of years of experience that qualify you to have a human conversation. Know yourself, know your client, and find solutions. You’re just human, and so are they. Find the magic formula that works for you and run with it. Tweak your formula over time and always ask for advice.