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Summary: If you want to gain more long-term clients for you and your firm, you need to establish yourself as more than a lawyer.
There’s more to modern day law than representing clients, winning (or losing) a case, and for that, getting paid.
Clients want more – much more, especially in the sense of you as their lawyer, taking a genuine interest in the client’s life and future.
It can be quite a challenge for any law firm to get clients and next keep those clients long term. The practice of law is not just the practice of law; it is also the practice of marketing, public relations and continually following up with clients.
After all, this is how successful non-legal businesses keep their clients. For instance, take an auto dealership who sells a newly married couple a car. The enterprising salesperson will understand that couple may someday have a family, so in one or two years’ time, that salesperson will likely call the couple, ascertain updates on their lives (and the car), and if the couple is pregnant, recommend a more practical set of wheels than, say, the convertible they bought while in the early stages of their marriage.
That salesperson will continue this relationship, understanding that the couple may have continual need for upgrades throughout their years. One in the marriage may want a sports car, while another might like to be behind the wheel of an SUV. The kids will someday start driving, which can result in even more vehicle sales between the salesperson and the couple who first bought the convertible, and have since bought multiple cars from the dealership, resulting in multiple commissions for the salesperson.
Now, if small law firms (as well as large law firms) only thought in this way, there would be no reason to worry about client attrition. Clients, after a long-term relationship with a lawyer, will more likely stick with that lawyer until, quite frankly, their dying days.
And why is that?
The lawyer knows the client and the client knows the lawyer. In fact, the lawyer knows:
The clients’ personal life.
Their kids, even their grandkids.
Their fears, beliefs, and expectations.
Their plans through trusts and wills as to what will happen to their effects.
In a perfect world, this would be the perfect client-lawyer relationship. It is one that grows with time, becomes stronger and has the very real potential to be something more than a billable hour-type relationship.
The question is how does a lawyer, particularly a lawyer in a small law firm, initiate a relationship like this? Even more important is how does that lawyer in that small law firm maintain that relationship?
There are many theories and just as many practices a lawyer and their law firm can engage in which will not only bring in new clients, but retain their existing clients.
Law as a Relationship
The fact is this: The practice of law, particularly BigLaw with its prestige and pedigree, will in a very short amount of time, have to get off its high horse.
It’s no longer a matter of getting hired for a case, winning that case, getting paid to win that case, and then we all leave one another happily ever after until the next legal crisis arises.
Things have begun to no longer work that way, and will slowly but surely change. Business is now about relationships, and with the new generation of those with money to spend on lawyers, the relationship factor is no less important.
To find and draw in new clients, lawyers need something more in their background than Ivy league-trained and BigLaw experienced. Honestly, fewer and fewer up-and-coming clients, particularly the bevy of wealthy client/entrepreneurs who never even went to college, aren’t interested in law schools and big stuffy law firms.
Their interest lies in whether or not the lawyer and law firm can understand their legal situation. They want to know that they can be helped by these lawyers and their firm. Will they be comprehended?
It is a sort of intimacy that these newer clients seek and demand. And of course, that needed intimacy is what attracts these new clients to smaller, more intimate law firms.
Smaller law firms take the time to listen, have the capacity to care, realize hardship or triumph, and because of their close-knit relationship with the client, know the exact legal remedy the client needs.
Good lawyers are like good shoes: You tend to recommend them to others for their comfort, lightness, good fit and durability.
Lawyers with strong human-like relationships tend to be recommended for their attentiveness as well as their success with a client’s legal issue. Of course, while success with legal issues retains a high level of importance between an attorney and client, the customer service aspect of attentiveness and genuine interest in a client’s life can be long-term gold with a payoff that entails frequent referrals.
As an attentive lawyer, sooner or later you will be introduced to your client’s friends and family who may also be in need (if not now, then in the future) of your legal services.
In short, it’s your attention that has netted you not only a lasting client, but more clients simply because you went above and beyond what is expected.
Needless to say, this is exactly how successful businesses (nonlegal) keep legacy clients while also acquiring new clients.
Creating Legal Value
In an article that appears on the FindLaw website regarding client retention, one tip the write-up gives that exists near the top of attributes small law firms should have when reaching out to and retaining clients is for those firms – and their lawyers – to not just create and understand their legal value, but convey the importance of that legal value to their clients, prospective as well as long-standing.
As the article states, a lawyer or small law firm need only to develop and employ a few characteristics that current and future clients will find attractive. Those are:
Be an expert in your practice area: The bottom line is that your clients are paying you for your legal knowledge. Therefore, the best way to create legal value is to bring to your client's matter an expert understanding of the issues. You cannot create much legal value without that expert knowledge.
Anticipate legal issues before they arise, and address them with your client: This is an offshoot of demonstrating to your client your command of the legal matter your client wants help with. It suffices it to say that clients like attorneys who are proactive problem-solvers. In addition to the convenience of not having to deal with future, time-consuming legal matters that are preventable, being proactive in your representation of a client is also a cost-savings measure which enhances your legal value and makes a client more likely to remain loyal.
Provide timely and useful legal advice: This may seem misplaced but the best legal value is sometimes provided for free and when your client doesn't need immediate help. So, a good habit to develop in your bid to provide legal value is sending your client relevant, periodic updates on the law. If, for instance you have a Trust and Estates practice, follow the news that comes out of the probate courts in your jurisdiction and periodically update your clients on any changes in the law or happenings you think they might find useful.
According to FindLaw, creating service value is equally as important as creating legal value.
As the article explains, clients in today’s legal world enjoy a fairly strong assortment of attorneys and law firms to choose from. And those lawyers and law firms which seem sketchy or unreliable as far as attorney-client relations are concerned will certainly be picked last for representation, even at that.
Law practices like this will invariably experience difficulty staying profitable and keeping their doors open. With that, a law firm’s value has to be packaged and delivered with a robust amount of service value. Creating a good service model could include such basic items as:
Communicating with clients in a reasonably prompt manner. Several years ago, the ABA commissioned a study in which it found that the largest amount of complaint received against attorney by clients involved the failure of attorneys to return phone calls. The quickest way to lose a client is to neglect them. Simply put, a client is not going to give you their money if they think you do not value their business. So, prompt communication with a client is one of the effective ways of creating and maintaining client loyalty.
Hire helpful office staff. Depending on the size of your practice and your own practice philosophy, your office staff members will interact with your clients more often than you do. Therefore it is important that your staff understand your service-value approach and implement it by being professional and helpful when interacting with clients. Also, since a helpful team of office staff can be a tremendous asset to your practice by increasing its service value, be prepared to generously compensate helpful staff members.
Provide alternative billing choices. Here too, providing great legal service just isn't enough anymore. Unless you have a highly specialized practice with few competitors, you may have to sometimes discount your legal fees or provide flexible billing options to your clients. Alternative billing practices could be an effective client-retention tool since your client will appreciate the recognition and the modest, short term losses in revenue may be recouped over time if your client keeps coming back.
The attorney-client relationship can be as precarious as it is treacherous. So many variables can introduce themselves into the processes of a legal action that it’s a wonder there isn’t more hatred and distrust against attorneys than what already exists.
For the fact is, neither attorneys nor their law firms, can just sit back and expect positive outcomes of their clients’ legal situations; that type of business relationship between attorney and client, and has long since been staid and tired.
These days, more involvement is needed from attorneys and law firms, particularly those firms that are small in comparison to BigLaw firms.
Yes, this does translate into reputation, of which many smaller firms seem to not have much of in the face of recognition. Nevertheless lawyers and the small law firms they work for can easily overcome this deficit by taking that extra step for a client.
Be involved, and think of your relationship with your clients as more than just a business necessity; stay genuine and just a quick response away from your client’s needs at every turn and facet of their life.
Do this, and not only will you have a legal customer for life (as well as their friends and family who are also well aware of you), but a friendship that is equally as important.
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