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Practice Management Advisory Service

Client Communication–It Starts Earlier Than You Think & It May Never End

We are good communicators with others to the extent that we are good communicators with ourselves. When one really knows oneself and is comfortable and at peace with oneself, communicating with others can be easy. If you cannot be honest with yourself or if you don’t trust yourself, communicating with others will not be easy.

The internal conversation shapes the external conversation.  To the extent that we are happy, secure and comfortable in our skin, we tend to be good and effective communicators. The angry, exhausted and burned–out lawyer generally compounds his or her communication difficulties. We need to learn how to monitor and take good care of ourselves. And it also helps to have trusted sources to whom we can turn and get feedback on how well we are communicating. So good communicating starts on the inside and works its way out.

Controlling the message
As lawyers we often want and need to manage our communication very carefully. In part this comes from the fact that we are an elite group. We are licensed to solve the problems of others. In part it comes from the fact that we are regulated.

We may spend enormous time over the wording of a firm brochure, our Web site or our newsletter. How much time did you spend designing your first business card or LinkedIn profile?

But what about all the inadvertent ways we communicate with clients, potential clients and the rest of the world? What unintended messages are we sending?

Consider, for example, these four sources of inadvertent messages about us: our physical files, our appearance, the chief communicator for our office, and our signage.

Our files “talk” and if we write on the outside of them in between hearings, they might be saying things we don’t want others to know. But even if we don’t take notes on the outside of the file jacket, the label itself can “talk.” Consider the twelve inch thick and well organized case labeled for anyone to see: STATE v. JOHN DOE, CASE NO. 1234 FELONY CHILD MOLESTATION. While the matter is technically a public record, rules of conduct and concern for our client should persuade us to keep such information confidential. Find a discreet way to label files. Mr. Doe will appreciate your discretion when you carry the file to and from court.

How we dress communicates all sorts of messages to our clients and the public in general. Sometimes objective feedback and a three way mirror can be useful. If we wear custom tailored clothing but they look like we have slept in them, we are sending the wrong message. Clothes off the rack that are clean, neat and pressed will send a better message. We may decide to go casual in our office, but what do our clients really expect from us when they see us at critical moments in their lives and depend upon our professional judgment? Do we dress properly for the occasion?

Body language counts as well. If you are frequently asked, ‘what’s wrong?’, chances are that the stress and panic you feel inside is showing on the outside.

Spend some time every week observing the body language of others and see if you need to make some adjustments in your own body language. If you want to see an interesting demonstration of body language at work, watch good trial lawyers in voir dire, assuming the judge allows good, open voir dire before a jury trial begins. Observe how they communicate with potential jurors and watch for the potential jurors with arms folded across their chests staring at the floor or ceiling. Do you see any of your own traits and habits in this dynamic? Who are the good communicators and how are they messaging?

If your office has staff, who is the designated chief communicator for the firm? Who greets clients and potential clients and answers the phone? In many offices, the youngest and greenest employees get this duty without regard to whether they have any of the required skills. The better, more savvy offices put their best communicators in this position. We should want our best communicators to be in this key position that often creates the first impression the world has of our law office.

Imagine a very upset potential client calling your office with the best case you have seen in months. Do you want the client to be in the good, caring hands of a seasoned communicator who will handle the call effectively or to wind up on hold without any explanation while an unnerved rookie who has not a clue looks for help?

Regularly check your firm’s signage, whether it’s a sign board in a building lobby or exterior signage on a building. If it’s old or deteriorating, it says you don’t care. Keep it up to date and fresh, but know that modifying exterior signage can trigger commercial zoning regulation. A grandfathered sign could lose its status by upkeep in some jurisdictions, so check before you paint or repair. Is a weathered, faded sign doing the communicating that you want? Is your exterior signage consistent with your other marketing?
The ways that we inadvertently communicate are nearly endless. What about the bags and briefcases we carry? Do we look like hoarders or someone who is too cheap to buy a new briefcase? Sometimes simplicity sends the best message. And do we prepare food in our office or bring in carryout? If you have food in your office, you probably have food odors and you may be so accustomed to the smell of meatball sandwiches or General Tso’s chicken that you don’t notice the odor, but others will. Are you sending the message that you intend? Is the food odor a turnoff for those you really want to impress?

The rules
What guidance do the rules give us about communication?[1]

Rule 1.4 requires the lawyer to be in regular communication with the client during the representation. The expectation is that the lawyer will be listening to the client and educating the client. Oral communication is not enough where it is important that the client be informed orally and in writing of critical circumstances and where it is important that the lawyer document the communication. E–mail may be replacing the letter and oral communication in many lawyer–client relationships. The lawyer must ensure that email is confidential and preserved. Preservation in the cloud is not enough. Some clients like to text. Confidentiality and preservation issues abound with texting. Know how to preserve and print before you text with a client or anyone else in your professional practice.

Rule 7.1 says the lawyer shall not make a false or misleading communication about the lawyer or the services. We cannot lie, exaggerate, confuse or promise something beyond our control or reach.

These of course are not the only rules that apply to communication with clients. It would seem that the standard set by the rules is a fairly low bar—the lawyer is to make sure the client knows what is going on and the lawyer is to tell the truth. This is not an unreasonable standard for any relationship of importance. It is precisely what we would expect of anyone upon whom we are relying for help.

These rules frame our intentional communications. Our business cards, letterhead, signage, brochures, newsletters, display ads and Web sites all must conform, but in conforming, we must still communicate and educate. At a minimum our means of communication and our marketing tools must say who we are, where we are, how to reach us and what we do.

What to talk about
But if the lawyer simply talks about him or herself and lists credentials and achievements, the marketing opportunity is wasted on activity that sounds more like an obituary than anything else. The intentional communication that a lawyer does, commonly known as marketing, becomes relevant to the potential client with a problem in need of solving when the lawyer talks about the problem she or he solves. Here is how the process works best:

The lawyer, having focused as narrowly as possible within a specific practice area, manifests a problem solving system about which the lawyer is passionate. The lawyer must be deeply invested in his or her problem solving system, also known as the practice area, to the point where solving the problems of others is joy, not work, or at least as close to joy as it can be. If you don’t like what you do, doing is hard.

The lawyer then identifies her or his ideal potential client. The more narrowly focused one’s problem solving system is, the easier the identification process becomes. The lawyer describes who this ideal client is, where the client lives, what the client does and in some cases, who is already involved with or doing business with the ideal client.

The lawyer then focuses on the ideal client’s problem recognition process. Every potential client goes through a process whereby he or she becomes aware of and involved with the problem that ultimately needs to be solved by the lawyer. The earlier the lawyer’s marketing message connects with the potential client in the problem recognition process, the more likely a lawyer–client relationship will result. Understanding the client’s process helps the lawyer style the marketing message.

For example, a plaintiff injury attorney learned from talking with many new clients that immediately after the crash and long before the injured person began seriously thinking about hiring a lawyer, the injured person was concerned about the effect of the crash and related injury and medical expense upon the person’s credit report. This was a wide spread concern even with clients with sufficient insurance and the means to pay healthcare costs. The lawyer was surprised and responded effectively.

The lawyer identified a key concern of potential clients occurring early on in the problem recognition process by caring, by asking open ended questions and by listening. The lawyer created informative content about this concern. He wrote material dealing with the effect of a crash and injury on one’s credit report. He published this material on the marketing channels available to him including his Web site, blog linked to his website, and newsletter.

He created slides about the topic, uploaded the slides to SlideShare, linked the slides to his LinkedIn profile and Tweeted about the information now available, linking back to his blog and website. He therefore created a high likelihood that if a potential client searched in Google with crash injured effect credit report, or some variation of like search terms, the potential client seeking information would be brought to his Web site to be educated and informed.

Enter the problem recognition process
If the lawyer is engaged with and educating the potential client early in the client’s problem recognition process, the client may never reach the final question in that process which is: who is the right lawyer for me? The client won’t need to address that question because he or she has been educated by the lawyer who is marketing to the problem he or she solves. The potential client is drawn to and often selects the lawyer who has been marketing about the problem that the lawyer is expert at solving.

When the lawyer becomes focused upon and familiar with the potential client’s problem recognition process, which is frequently a relatively long and complex process depending upon the practice area, the lawyer finds many ways to style a marketing message designed to reach the potential client early on in that process.

If all of the lawyer’s marketing is geared toward the end of the client’s problem recognition process when the client is faced with the decision of who is the right lawyer for the client, the competition will be intense and it may be difficult to differentiate oneself from all the marketing messages. An example of this dilemma is the potential client thumbing through the attorney section of the yellow pages. All those display ads are to one degree or another directed at the final stage of the problem recognition process: who is the right lawyer for me?

Focusing on your ideal client’s problem recognition process causes the lawyer to define his or her value to the ideal client. The marketing message then becomes a demonstration that the lawyer is intimately aware of all aspects of the potential client’s problem and is expert in bringing about its resolution.

For example, the family lawyer who has elected to focus narrowly and only takes on high conflict child custody cases, or who limits his or her practice area to women in divorce, might then create free, relevant information about aspects of these matters such as factors related to custody, the custody evaluation process, issues involving asset distribution and recent developments in family law. This information is presented in an informative, easy to read and understanding manner.

The subject matter for these marketing messages can be driven by the five to ten questions the lawyer is presented with at nearly every initial client meeting. Content can be used in more than one context and can appear in different formats in the newsletter, on the Web site and in a blog post.

By publishing content that demonstrates to potential clients that the lawyer understands their problems and knows how to solve them, the lawyer builds credibility. Potential clients want to hire those they trust.

The more directly the marketing message is tied to the potential client’s problem recognition process, the more relevant the marketing message will be.

The style and method of this process varies widely depending upon the practice area. The lawyer handling the defense of street crimes is dealing with a potential client who needs little education about the fact that he or she has a problem in need of solution. Investigation, arrest and incarceration shorten the client recognition process considerably in the criminal defense lawyer’s world.

The lawyer doing estate planning for young professionals must engage in a process of educating his or her potential clients about issues that may be unfamiliar and distant to them. This client base may think little about estate planning until a child comes and then the subject that attracts these clients’ attention is who will care for their baby if both parents are gone. A discussion about guardianship in marketing material is likely to enter the problem recognition process very early in this client base.

Never say goodbye
Once the lawyer has made the effort to engage early with the potential client, has signed him or her up and has competently communicated with the client and solved the client’s problem, do you ever let the client go? Is there ever a final goodbye?

While the matter may be complete and the file closed, the former client will hopefully be a source of referral business and should continue to receive the lawyer’s newsletter and other marketing messages unless there is a request to be taken off the contact list. Happy former clients can be very effective at referring new business. Plan to have a long and continuing relationship.

Indeed, if the lawyer has been a good communicator, the former client can become a strong advocate for others to employ the lawyer. The need for a functional database, like Outlook or Daylite, to hold client, former client and referral source data is critical. Over time this database becomes a valuable asset of the law firm. It must be protected, guarded and backed up, all the while being added to and updated. It becomes the engine that drives who receives the hard copy newsletter, the digital newsletter, announcements and other communications about the firm.

Frequently, the most effective, meaningful marketing for a professional, licensed problem solver is word–of–mouth referral. As sophisticated and technological as marketing can and sometimes must be, a word–of–mouth referral can trump the highly optimized website any day. Why is this true? The potential client trusts what he or she is told by those whom he or she believes. We must be all about building trust and credibility. We build trust and credibility about ourselves to the extent that we inform and educate our clients while we are solving their problems and to the extent that we market to the problems we solve.

Daniel M. Mills
Manager, Practice Management Advisory Service
District of Columbia Bar
[email protected]

Daniel M. Mills is the Manager of the Practice Management Advisory Service of the D.C. Bar. Dan helps lawyers with the business of their law offices. He is a member of the Bar of the District of Columbia and the State of Indiana. Dan leads Basic Training & Beyond, a two–day, monthly, free program for solo and small firm lawyers in the D.C. Bar sponsored by the Practice Management Service Committee. The program received the ABA’s E. Smythe Gambrell Award for Professionalism in 2011.

Dan’s first job after college was at The Washington Post. He worked as a journalist for several years covering courts and lawyers and attended Indiana University Law School in Indianapolis at night. He was a trial lawyer in Indiana for 28 years until his retirement from solo and small firm practice in Indiana in 2007. He has been an advocate for children and has served as a court appointed special advocate and guardian ad litem for abused and neglected children.

Since joining the D.C. Bar in 2008, Dan has helped many lawyers transition into solo and small firm practice. He speaks and writes regularly about ethics and fee agreements, ethics and trust accounts, IOLTA, flat fees and advance fees in light of In Re Mance, the characteristics of the solo attorney, launching a practice in today’s economy, marketing, social media, planning, productivity, and the lawyer as entrepreneur. He leads a monthly networking dinner of local lawyers on the second Tuesday of each month.

Dan can be reached at the D.C. Bar at 202–626–1312 or [email protected].

[1] All references are to the District of Columbia Rules of Professional Conduct