You may be a good lawyer, or even a great lawyer. You may regularly achieve favorable results for your clients at mediation or trial. Every party deposition you take may provide impeachment material that will render the plaintiff a disreputable puddle of deceit on the witness stand. But if you aren’t providing meaningful communication and reporting with your client throughout the litigation process, they are going to be displeased with you. This is why it’s important to building touch points into your case management processes.
Different Types of Touch Points
Touch points are influential communication actions you take that work to shape your client’s experience. There are different methods of communication, each of which has its own virtues and drawbacks.
The telephone. I know it’s old-fashioned, but hear me out. Aside from in-person meetings, phone calls are the most personal of common business communication methods. Phone calls enable you to communicate things to your client that you may not be ready to commit to writing. But phone calls have the disadvantage of requiring two or more people to be available at the same time.
Email. Email is my communication method of choice. It’s an asynchronous tool, meaning that the sender and recipient do not have to be available concurrently. Each can send, read, or respond at his leisure (within reason). But email has its drawbacks – it can be highly impersonal and impossible to convey nuance.
Several years ago, one of my staff had messed something up. I fired off an email to the effect of, “This thing happened. Let’s fix it and not do it again.” For me, that was the end of it. I wasn’t mad, and I had all but moved on. Before putting the matter totally to bed though, I needed to tell the partner we had a screw-up, so I stepped into her office to tell her about it. Before I got more than a sentence in, she responded ominously, “I know.” Apparently, the staff member had been offended by my terse email. I had no idea. As a young associate, I received an important lesson that some communications need to be in person so they’re not misconstrued.
Face-to-Face. In-person meetings are frequently the most profitable, but they require the most resources. Both time and monetary resources. And in a business in which your time is your money, time resources are monetary resources. The time you spend traveling to or meeting with once client is time you are unable to spend on other clients. However, face-to-face meetings are particularly important for building relationships and for providing the most insurance against miscommunication. There is no substitute for observing someone’s facial expressions and body language during the course of a conversation.
Instant Messaging. I know that AOL IM has gone the way of the dodo bird, but there are apps like Slack and Discord that are being implemented by many businesses to allow for easier collaboration on projects, particularly where employees are in different locations. Instant messaging tends to be informal and not particularly practical for sharing large volumes of information. But it can be a very efficient means of engaging in quick-response communications.
Letters and Written Reports. If you need to convey large volumes of information, provide evaluations with lengthy explanations, or synopsize recent developments in a case, there’s no better way than to do so in the form of a letter or report. The whole thing takes time – drafting proofreading, and revising. But there’s no substitute for the amount and quality of information that you can communicate in this format.
Building Touch Points into Your Processes
Knowing which communication methods are available to you is only half the battle. While you’re managing forty or fifty cases at a time, it can be easy to lose sight of how [in]frequently you’re communicating with your clients about their cases. This is why it’s important to build touch points into your practice management systems that help you maintain good, regular communication with your clients. Some clients will assist you with this be providing you with reporting guidelines – 45 days after a case is assigned, after party depositions, 30 days before mediation, etc. I use a spreadsheet to keep track of my more formal communications [You can receive my case management spreadsheet by subscribing to this blog, below], and others I know use calendar notices. The prompt you use to make sure you’re engaging with your clients is largely irrelevant, as long as you’re using the most effective tool for you, and more importantly, as long as you’re touching base with your clients frequently and with useful information.
Historically, one of the things I have told clients early on is that it’s common for there to be gaps of weeks or even months between the various phases of a case. There will likely be times where they don’t hear from me for a while, and that doesn’t mean anything is wrong. Instead, the lack of communication means there’s nothing to report. But I’ve learned that clients would usually rather have an occasional email from me reporting that there’s nothing to report, rather than being subjected to an undisturbed void.
You don’t want to be the lawyer who requires constant management and prodding from your clients to communicate and comply with guidelines. Regular communication with your clients, may be a soft, non-measurable metric, but it doesn’t go unnoticed and does affect your relationship.
Photo by Delwin Steven Campbell.