Regular and frequent communication with clients can go far to hold together the client-attorney relationship. Some of the communication can also be used effectively as a method of developing new business.
This article discusses the common methods of general attorney communication with clients, including status reports, announcements, and personal notes, the value of these to attorneys, and an effective data base system to maintain good client contacts.
"Deluge your clients with paper" is an axiom of legal services today. Attorneys, along with accountants and other consultants, are well advised to maintain communication with clients through frequent messages. It will be a rare client who ever complains about receiving too much information from his or her attorney.
Five effective techniques
No matter how many and how frequent are the communications, they are most successful when they are prepared in such a way that the client sees the relevance (and perhaps benefit) to themselves. For instance, an attorney announcing a new office location may be justifiably proud of his new surroundings. But the client will only find this to be "good news" if he or she perceives improved service, easier access, free parking, or some other benefit. If an attorney informs a client of a new change in employment law, the client will only ask "How does this affect me?" The more immediate benefit to the client that the attorney can establish in the client's mind, the better will be the relationship.
Highly professional and acceptable means of communication are announcements, situational letters regarding new legislation, deadlines, and so on, status reports, general printed materials (such as brochures, etc.), and personal note cards.
A common and frequently used method of client communication is the printed announcement of a relocation of a law firm office, new associates, awards, personal achievements, and so on. Most announcements, whether of a new firm member, office location, award, or settlement of a special case, are presented to clients, to peers and to the general public in limited terms. Specifically, most announcements describe the ‘who, what, when, and where’.
But the most important fact is often missing-the why. The "why" is the benefit to the client, which is ultimately the most important aspect of the entire event. When preparing announcements, attorneys should write the facts, and then ask themselves: "Why is this important to my clients?" The answer to this question must be added to the announcement to gain maximum impact. The most effective attorney announcements of all kinds are those that provide enough details so that the recipient understands the significance of the announcement.
Situational letters are used by attorneys to describe upcoming deadlines for employers, new or pending legislation, and a host of other broad legal subjects. Letters are frequently generated by attorneys from their current work on specific situations. By generalizing the information and sending it to non-clients, attorneys show interest in the client's business and reminding them of the attorney's expertise in an area of law.
Situational letters are clearly a well-established and acknowledged method of client communication. They are usually well within the comfort zone of even the most conservative attorneys. At the same time, they are perhaps the most difficult method of client communication for attorneys. If there is a universal criticism, it rarely involves the content of the letter. Most are technically accurate and, upon close study, provide an astute analysis of a current situation.
Where they fail is in their form. Most letters are single spaced, long, and presented in a standard letter format. They will have a formal salutation, 10 to 15 long paragraphs, and the close. The writer assumes the receiver is prepared to read and understand a usually complex legal matter. This is a classic situation where the form gets in the way of the content. Situational letters are received and understood much better when the information is organized into three levels--a headline, an executive summary, and the main text. In other words, if the receiver can only review the letter quickly, a headline will tell him or her the subject and general conclusion. If time permits, the receiver can get a quick working knowledge of the situation through the executive summary. Then, if necessary, the receiver can obtain a better understanding through the main text.
For a common example of information organized into levels, The Wall Street Journal publishes many "situational letters" every day. The only difference is that they are called news stories. The Wall Street Journal’s system of headline, subhead (or executive summary), and body text enables the reader to scan a large amount of text quickly for information of relevance.
Another form of a generally accepted but little used communication method with clients is the status report. These are defined as regular communication with existing clients about specific matters and action (or inaction) taken by the attorney on their behalf. These are usually made via letter (although fax machines are being used more frequently).
Attorneys almost always know what is happening on a case but, surprisingly, the client may not until a bill arrives. This is not the best way of informing a client of activity during the billing period.
Research published in national law journals indicates that, when asked to identify three areas where they were disappointed in their legal services, the largest percentage of individuals currently buying legal services said "lack of communication from my attorney regarding the status of my case."
The most successful individual attorneys are those whose clients hear from their attorney frequently regarding the status of their case. These are also the clients who are most loyal and voice little criticism upon payment of invoices. Communication can range from as little as a fax that says "Your motion was filed in superior court this morning at 9:45" to a formal cover letter describing current action, with attachments of documents submitted to the opposing counsel.
This is an area where the axiom "deluge your clients with paper" can be easily carried out. The alternative is a little less work for your administrative staff and a small savings on postage and copier paper. But the price can be a disgruntled client calling to find out "what's happening on my case."
General printed materials
Any time that a lawyer develops general printed materials such as brochures and individual biographies, an opportunity exists to communicate with current and potential clients. While most attorneys will doubt the value of sending brochures to existing clients, its value is strong.
Proof of this can be found in advertising research which notes that the highest readership of advertisements for new automobiles is from people who have recently purchased that particular automobile. The reason is that the buyer wishes to reaffirm the wisdom of his or her previous judgment and therefore seeks information reinforcing the decision.
Existing clients are also continually looking for reinforcement that they made (and are making) a good investment in an attorney. Therefore, information as contained in brochures, announcements of awards, notices of conclusions of large business transactions, and related events are usually welcomed by the existing client.
Another opportunity for attorney communication with clients is through personal notes. Items sent can range from news articles on the client's area of business to an article on antique automobiles. The point is to demonstrate interest in the client's business and personal life.
One technique that makes the sending of personal notes very easy for attorneys is to print cards with the message 'Thought you might find this of interest" which are suitable to clip to any item being sent. In many cases, these cards can be printed concurrently with business cards at little additional cost.
With a little direction from the attorney, virtually all five of these communication techniques (and any other the attorney thinks of) can be handled by a well-trained receptionist and a good mailing list. Once the attorney has devoted the time to prepare the content of the document, a minimum of attorney time should be necessary to build a stream of steady and varied communication to clients.
Regular client contact system
A system that works well for maintaining regular and systematic client contact is a data base for each client or referral name. This can be computerized or consist of an index card for each person.
Here's how a good system works for attorneys. (For this example, a system using index cards is explained, since it will work for every attorney. Attorneys with computers can easily create the same process electronically with current software.)
Each client (by company or individual) is put on a separate card. Each client is evaluated to determine the interval between contacts, in absence of the client themselves initiating some sort of contact. If determined that XYZ Corp. (a recent past client) should be contacted every four months, their name was put on a blue card and the staff put the card in the action file box "tickler" for four months from now. That way, the person responsible for relations with that client would be reminded to call on XYZ Corp. in four months. Likewise, all clients that should be contacted in four-month intervals would have their names put on blue cards for the staff to file accordingly.
Red cards signified monthly contacts; yellow meant alternate months; green meant semiannual; brown signified yearly intervals.
The staff is responsible for checking the tickler file and advising which clients were due for a call or check to see if there had been contact.
The cards themselves hold several pieces of information valuable to anyone doing the follow-up. When is the best time to contact the client? Morning, afternoon, evening? How should they be contacted-telephone, personal call, fax, letter? The cards indicated the date of the last "client retention" contact.
What was the nature of the contact-a social event, a business meeting, or other situation? Was it a specially arranged conference, at the client's location? At whose office? Was the contact by phone, in person, letter, or fax?
What subjects were discussed? Who initiated contact? What action was to be taken by both parties? When was follow-up action relative to the matter appropriate?
With the assistance of the staff, this simple system would enable an attorney to keep track of clients in order to initiate appropriate client retention contacts.