By Vivek Jayaram
Nearly every relationship we have in our lives turns on communication. If we communicate well with someone, the relationship will likely be successful. And we’ve all been in relationships where we just couldn’t seem to communicate well with the other person. Those relationships don’t last.
In my experience, developing a successful relationship with clients in house also turns on effective communication. There are three strategies that I think can help lawyers be better communicators and as a result develop stronger relationships with their clients in house: (1) be responsive; (2) be clear and concise; and (3) be honest.
“What’s the status on our case?” is a question I despise getting from clients. It means I’ve done something wrong because I should always be proactively updating my client’s on their matters. They shouldn’t have to ask because I’ve already told them. Even when you’re simply waiting for a Court’s decision or awaiting the other side to flip a document, we can always explain and remind a client that we are waiting for x, I have followed up with y, and I expect to have it by date z. Because we don’t know (nor do they) when the CEO, GC, or CFO might give them a buzz and say “we’re looking at our legal budget for the next quarter, what’s going on with Case X?” All your client should have to do is read your last email to be able to answer.
A few years ago the ABA did a survey where they asked clients to identify the biggest issues they had working with outside counsel (in fact, I believe they did this several years straight, and the response was the same each time). The biggest problem: lack of responsiveness. Like it or not, if you’re not responsive the perception is either you’re lazy or don’t have the bandwidth to handle this client’s matter. Both are problematic and probably detrimental to the relationship. At our firm we have a policy that we respond to client emails the same day. Every day. Every email, phone call, or text message. Even if we don’t have a substantive answer to their query (many times we don’t because they’ll identify an issue that needs to be researched or investigated), we let them know that we received their message and we are going to do x, y, or z to gather information to respond.
Our job is to make our clients’ jobs easier. By constantly arming them with the information they need to effectively do their job, we’ll continue to develop meaningful relationships based on effective communication.
Be Clear and Concise
A few months ago, we were retained to represent an established creative agency on a number of IP and corporate matters. We had a meeting in which they identified a handful of issues that had to be sorted out in a customer agreement. They asked for a proposal and strategy for moving forward.
As we often do, we gave them a simple, 5-step process by which we believed the issue could be resolved adequately and efficiently without much disruption in their ongoing work together. The email basically said, here’s what we should do: 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. Within 10 minutes of sending the email I got a call from the client. When I saw the number pop up I was a little concerned; what did I write in that email that upset them?! Thankfully, the client called simply to say that in the 20 years they had been growing their business, they had never received an email from a lawyer that was so straightforward and easy to understand. Now, this probably says more about their prior counsel than me, but the point is that our clients – like us – are juggling many things at once. They probably get hundreds of emails a day. When they ask us a basic question, they don’t need us to recite the pertinent legislative history or describe all the things that may happen if we choose a certain strategy (unless they ask us to, in which case of course we’d provide them with a memo outlining all the possible issues), they need us to be clear, concise, and articulate an action that will be taken to move closer towards solving a problem.
Again, our job is to make our clients’ jobs easier. A twelve paragraph email that doesn’t really pinpoint what we are going to do next (or what additional information you need from the client) probably raises more questions than it answers. Keep your answers tight, responsive to the issue at hand, and concise. Don’t worry, if your client needs more, they’ll ask. They’ll appreciate the efficiency and be thankful for the clarity.
This one seems easy, but it’s not always followed. Naturally, we should be truthful about everyday things like “I am in a deposition today” or “I received the document from the other side and will send it to you this afternoon,” but what I really mean is be honest in your advice to your client.
Last year, a client of ours was in the very early stages of developing a substantial creative project in New York. As the project started to break ground, a partnership dispute ensued. There was one very obvious solution that we proposed during our first call with opposing counsel. They eventually agreed to the proposal – after many, many months of expensive pre-litigation activities that went nowhere and did nothing to advance their clients’ cause.
I felt that they were not being honest with their client. While I of course do not know what they said to their client, we got the sense that they were trying to run up the bill because – well, let’s be honest – resolving a dispute on the first phone call isn’t exactly profitable if you’re a lawyer. But we all have a duty to be honest with our clients, and maybe an unwritten duty to be honest with ourselves. So what does this mean? Don’t advise expensive litigation if it’s not the best path for the client. Don’t be afraid to tell your client that you are advising them to do X, but it could backfire and result in Y. Or be truthful about the deadline you missed, and explain to them how you are going to fix it (at no cost).
In the event I haven’t made it clear enough, our job is to make our clients’ jobs easier. If we’re not candid in our advice to them, we’re doing them no favors and – even worse – may be putting them at risk internally. Delivering good news is easy. But being honest about potentially bad news – while difficult – is just as important. Your client will thank you for it in the long run.
Next week, we’ll talk about why it’s important for law firms to maintain a diverse workplace.