October 23, 2012

Interpersonal Communication as Business Development

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By Eric Paul Engel and Jowita L. Wysocka

A law firm’s two most valuable assets are its lawyers and its clients. Thus, it is imperative that lawyers nurture client-lawyer relationships to maximize both productivity and profitability. Here are pointers for cultivating professional relationships that will help you to make case management more efficient and more effective, improve client satisfaction, increase repeat business and generate new business.

  • Perceptions. Many lawyers buy nice clothes and wear expensive shoes to project a professional image. Yet what do you do to “show” clients that you are devoted to their cases? It involves what are called communication artifacts, which include e-mails, letters, faxes and conversations. Think of communication artifacts as evidence in a case. Clients base their perceptions of you, your firm, your services and your value on the written and spoken communication artifacts that constitute your client-lawyer relationship. When it comes time for clients to pay their bills, such artifacts serve as tangible evidence of the lawyer’s competent representation. They can also serve as valuable evidence should dissatisfied clients file disciplinary charges.

  • Expectations. At the outset of the relationship, you need to clearly define communication expectations—both yours and your client’s. Establish personal, if not firmwide, protocols for responding to client inquiries (for example, within four hours of receipt or by close of business the following day). Explain to clients your policy of responding to calls, e-mails and faxes as quickly as possible, even if only to let them know the status of their cases (such as papers being processed and items being discussed).

  • Listening. Law school teaches technical competence, including how to ask substantive questions in pursuit of the facts. Relationships, however, are more than facts. Many lawyers can improve their performance competence by learning how to listen better. Behind every case is a client coping with feelings like fear, anger and uncertainty. In addition to substantive, content-oriented communication, lawyers must recognize the role and value of relational communication with clients. When listening, communicate respect for your clients through both actions and inactions. Encourage them to share their stories fully and completely. One way to facilitate disclosure is to practice the “rule of three”: When a client is telling her story and you have something to say, count to three before asking questions or making comments.

  • Information. A common client complaint and primary source of disciplinary actions is inadequate communication. It is imperative that lawyers keep the client informed. To do so effectively, partners and associates must work as a team with legal secretaries and paralegals. Many a client question can and should be fielded by support staff (provided they have been given the necessary resources and appropriate training). Remember, however, that lawyers must clearly articulate what their paralegals and legal assistants ethically can and cannot do (such as giving legal advice and quoting fees). Support staff with the necessary resources and practices can field questions and update clients, thus reducing distractions and allowing lawyers to work more efficiently and more effectively on the practice of law.

  • Follow-up. A good way to maintain contact with both current and former clients is by facilitating professional and business introductions (grass roots, word-of-mouth advertising). Successful networking need not involve small talk over tired hors d’oeuvres at after-hours social functions. By helping to channel business among current and former clients, you are providing service to them long after their original cases have closed.

In addition, keep your clients informed (and stay on their radars) by e-mailing links to relevant, industry-specific news and resources. You can also distinguish yourself by sending handwritten notes. In a world awash with digital data, you will stand out by going low-tech and giving your communication the personal touch.