Michelle M. MacGrath
Perhaps you just finished playing 18 holes at the breathtaking, ocean side course at Pebble Beach two under par. Or maybe you are basking on a sand covered beach in Nevis, relaxing and enjoying the spoils of your successful practice. Not too long ago you recall the endless hours in the office, nights away from home, family and friends and a litany of endless meetings. Now, as you relax during your semi-annual vacation, you reflect on how easy it was.
Easy? Hardly. Developing a successful practice takes more than luck and timing. It is a foregone conclusion that it took years of dedication in academics to arrive at the level you have. Nevertheless, whether you are a Harvard grad or a Magna Cum Laude from Marquette, the playing field is equal when it comes to building client relationships.
Those who excel in this competitive marketplace of legal representation are those who enact the basic concepts of client relationships, marketing, and obtaining favorable results. Relationship building, decisiveness and reputation are all imperative in achieving results in the legal field and are among the basic concepts. So, for a moment, set aside your newsletters, updates and seminars and focus on the basics.
The number one difficulty that clients often express with the attorney/client relationship, and one that can sever a relationship rather than build it, is lack of responsiveness. It is imperative that you set aside time each day to return calls and inquiries from all of your clients. If you are deeply involved in a matter or case and are generally unavailable, be sure you assign this duty to a colleague so clients are not left hanging, wondering how important they are although you havent responded in three days. Most attorneys and legal marketing professionals have heard this mantra about responsiveness countless times, yet it still remains at the top of the client complaint list.
An example of what not to do: attorney Slacker is in Florida; hell get back to you when he returns. The fact that attorney Slacker took a vacation isnt the problem; however, the fact that he never informed his clients, changed his voicemail or e-mail, is a definite problem.
Communication style is equally important in building a client relationship. An attorney must look at the client through the clients eyes and communicate in the clients style be it via e-mail, phone or personal meetings. The personal touch of professional services is often lost among e-mails and voicemails so be conscientious that if your client calls you, you phone him/her back; if the client corresponds via e-mail, do the same because it will affirm your personal touch in recognizing the clients communication style. Communicate in a manner most convenient to the client rather than yourself.
Perhaps there is nothing more difficult for many clients than an attorney who offers every single option under the sun, recites the case law, refers to the legal references, speaks in legalese and after 45 minutes of laying out 20 different options to the client at $350 an hour, concludes with what would you like to do? without offering the client an opinion on the best approach. I term this strategy of lawyering as hand-wringing the age old indication of feckless advice and insecurity in ones interpretations of the law. While it is important that the client is aware of the various strategies and relative outcomes, clients are paying for the advice that your education, experience and legal acumen bring to the relationship and they expect you to offer it.
Building a reputation in the community and your professional field are extremely important in self promoting and establishing your credibility. While the idea of marketing to other attorneys through bar associations may be a turn-off to some lawyers, it does get your name out in a referral community via articles published and speeches given, which can be of particular importance to those practicing in smaller or individual firms.
Involvement in civic and professional activities lends itself to a number of different opportunities. Not only are you able to network with local decision makers and colleagues, speaking opportunities and board positions often arise out of participation in trade, professional and community organizations. The key is to balance your commitments to this endeavor. All too often we are eager to build our reputation and show our support and participation; however, if the goal is to show your leadership, dedication and participation in outside activities, you should focus on one or two initiatives in which you can give 100 percent of yourself, rather than 10 where you will be stretched too thin.
Remember, while responsiveness, communication, decisiveness and reputation are all important in building a successful practice and are obvious ingredients to achieving results, many attorneys fail to capitalize on these integral techniques that cost little and reap plenty. Dont be one of them.
Michelle MacGrath is a Client Relations Manager at the national law firm of Quarles & Brady LLP. She has directed the marketing activities of various firm practice groups, as well as the Milwaukee Office. Currently she directs marketing nationally for the firms Litigation Section.