The Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct inform us as to required communications with clients. Rule 1.4 requires a lawyer to keep a client informed, discuss objectives and means to accomplish the objectives, comply with requests for information and let the client know when the lawyer cannot take a particular action.
But what can be done better to inspire trust and confidence in a lawyer, promote loyalty and ensure a client’s return in the future? Effective client communication is an art requiring practice, diligence and compassion. But, just as it is with a friend or partner, the right kind of communication is key to long-lasting attorney-client relationships.
At the Beginning
- Take the time upfront to understand a client’s goals. Then repeat the objectives back to the client or summarize in an email to assure the client a lawyer understands the objectives, but also provide a guide as the project progresses. It is equally important to understand a client’s risk tolerances. A real estate developer may have a higher risk of tolerance than in-house counsel of a publicly traded company. We learn about our clients by asking questions and listening effectively.
- Understand what deliverable is needed from the person with whom you are communicating. When working with commercial real estate owners, we have frequent communications with property managers. Sometimes the property manager needs a summary to put into a report or an email to forward to other people in the company to solicit feedback, so the property manager might prefer an email to cut and paste instead of a series of piecemeal emails or a verbal update.
- Avoid judging past behavior, bad decisions or poorly drafted documents. We cannot change the past or the facts, and it may already be difficult for a client to air its dirty laundry, so we start with what we have before us and focus on solutions instead of being critical of what has already happened.
- Create an initial action plan setting forth what is expected of each relevant party, who is doing what and when it will be done. Timing is always important, so the action plan would ideally establish a timeline for the project communicated in writing. This may alleviate client anxiety since a lawyer’s work often requires more time than anticipated.
Along the Way
- Question things that don’t make sense or look odd, even if the oddity seems only tangential to the problem at hand. It’s tempting sometimes to dismiss a fact or a contract provision as irrelevant, but it’s the question I almost didn’t ask that provides the most insight into the parties’ relationship, potential leverage or facts not previously considered. A reference in a document to an easement not showing up in the title examination notes would be easy to dismiss as a mistake, but there also might be an unrecorded easement misplaced or forgotten in the client’s file, undiscovered if the detail remained unquestioned and disguised as an error.
- Make emails easy for a busy client to digest. Convey the message by delivering most important points first, because we may lose people by the end of a long email. Not every client appreciates receiving the full legal analysis. In fact, some are very busy and prefer succinct answers. To make it easy on the client and provide sufficient level of detail desired by some, consider using headings to break up the email and provide structure. State the client’s question or issue, showing you understand the question or issue. Then summarize the conclusion in an “executive summary” easy for a busy client to read from a phone on the go. Later in the email, present the analysis under a separate heading so the client can read through it in more detail when time permits. Be as succinct as possible. Usually, it makes sense to remove 30% of words from an initial draft. The most informative and instructive emails may be the ones three paragraphs long that took two hours to write and organize.
- When seeking a client decision, remember everyone likes choices. Sometimes there is only one right answer, but more often there are several options. Even when one choice is strategically superior from a legal perspective, it’s often easier to convince a person when it has choices. One way to encourage the client to take action is to communicate that one choice is to do nothing at all and maintain the status quo. Clients typically do not want the status quo. If they did, they would not hire an attorney to take action. From there, it’s helpful to list the options in order of preference or from most conservative to aggressive. That being said, err on the side of limiting choices to the best three to five since too many choices may lead to analysis paralysis and cause the client to suspect the attorney doesn’t know the best way forward.
- Have the grit to tell clients when you disagree. A client hires a lawyer because the client doesn’t know the answer and needs advice. Of course, be artful in delivering dissent, and consider voicing it over the phone. But however it’s done, the client will ultimately appreciate the honesty.
- Readily admit faults, mistakes and oversights and offer to correct at the least possible cost to the client. Also be cautious of appearing flippant when admitting a mistake. If a client points out a mistake, “Oops!” is perhaps an inferior response to one that conveys a realization of the importance of doing things right and letting the client know what will be done differently in the future.
- Avoid superlative or emotional language, because it detracts from the genius of the substance. Just as being calm and collected in a courtroom inspires confidence, so does being calm, unemotional and objective in written correspondence.
- Keep clients updated with progress, especially if the deadline is far in advance. Even in a lull, or if waiting on third parties, a client appreciates periodic updates to let him or her know the matter is getting requisite attention and thought.
At the End
- Be clear when a project or case has ended. Many times a client will ask for additional services or request assistance with future obligations.
- Show concern about a client’s success by tracking deadlines and following up with clients after the engagement to make sure they are meeting deadlines in a contract or settlement agreement. Or track to make sure the opposing party is following through on its obligations. This is also a great way to stay in touch with a client and is one of my favorite business development techniques.
- If true, tell the client how rewarding you found the project. Express that you appreciate the opportunity and would like the opportunity to work with the client again.