“Lack of communication, such as not calling or emailing a client back for weeks, is the most common complaint customers lodge against attorneys with local bar associations.” I think every attorney remembers his or her ethics professor uttering this sentence in class. The reason we all remember it is because it shocked us.
When I heard this, I thought, “No, that’s not right. It has to be something else, like attorneys not knowing the law adequately, or plain getting the law wrong.”
Turns out my ethics professor was right: lack of communication is the number one complaint among clients. Thankfully, there are some straightforward ways to rectify this problem.
The first is to set aside time to communicate with your clients. All attorneys I know are busy, which means you have to dedicate times of the day for client communication. This accomplishes two things: (1) it assures you actually answer calls and emails; and (2) it keeps you from checking your email forty times per day, which is actually counterproductive in the sense you get less done and communicate less because you’re always switching back and forth between tasks and wasting time (switching between tasks consumes on average about 28% of a person’s working time). I suggest setting aside blocks of time (e.g., 30 minutes) starting at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. for communication. You’ll be amazed at how much better your client communication will be if you keep it to a couple time periods per day.
The second is to set up systems to communicate with your clients. This means communicating at regular, prescribed intervals. In our office, we provide written update letters twice a month — once on the 15th and once on the 30th. Our attorneys block off time the day before to write the case update letters, and then send them the next morning. These letters don’t have to be long; a paragraph will usually do. Lay out what progress has been made over the past two weeks and what will happen over the next couple weeks (including hearings, etc.).
It has been our experience (and the experience of almost every other attorney I’ve talked to who does regular case update letters) that clients really appreciate them. When you send out these updates, you tend to receive fewer calls from frustrated clients. This is because their frustration, which is manifest in any number of ways, is often caused by worry about the status of their case or lack of communication in general.
The other beautiful thing about case status updates is, if done correctly, they can help bolster your relationship with your client. This is key because if you work to own that client-attorney relationship, your client will never go anywhere else for legal services. It is also key because clients are more forgiving if they like their attorney. Let’s face it: we make mistakes as attorneys. Now, you need to develop systems and know the law well enough not to make major mistakes, but we will all make some mistakes and some point. If you communicate effectively with your client and have a good relationship, he or she is much more likely to forgive you for a mistake. Effective communication is a much better insurance policy than the best malpractice insurance money can buy.
If you don’t have enough time to communicate with your clients the way I’ve described above, then it’s time to rethink your practice. If you have too many clients to speak to them when they call, then you have too many clients. Having too many clients is usually a function of either your price being too low, or not being selective enough about the clients you take on. One effective way to address the issue is to raise your prices. (This makes intuitive sense, even though the thought might seem scary.) There are other ways to address the issue of too many clients, but I’ll discuss those in another post.
Remember, communication is the best way to own the relationship with your clients, and regular case status update letters are a great way to communicate more effectively.