The attorney-client relationship is about more than just performing a legal task and collecting payment. Whether you’re providing full-service representation or limited scope services, how smoothly your work proceeds and how likely your client is to call on your services again or to recommend you to a friend depends in large part on the relationship you establish.
Many attorneys who recognize the importance of that relationship question how it will be impacted by technology. Operating in the cloud, communicating through an online platform and even providing services online seems, at a glance, more impersonal. Without face-to-face contact and a handshake, how will an attorney build a strong relationship with the client?
It’s true that personal contact is an important element of relationship-building; that one moment in your office when you speak about a shared local experience or sports team or any bit of common ground definitely helps the bond. But ask yourself what’s really important to the client, what determines client faith in an attorney or leaves a client feeling uncertain and distrustful.
Here are just a few of the key elements of relationship building that can be significantly aided by technology:
- Setting Expectations: You can do a great job for your client, but if he was expecting more he’ll still be disappointed. Setting clear expectations up front is an important part of building a successful attorney-client relationship. But setting those expectations in your initial discussion can be difficult, since the client’s mind is on the substantive legal issue and he doesn’t want to focus on “business”. The retainer or limited scope services agreement he signs in your office may never be read, and may never be unfolded again after he leaves your office. But when the terms of representation are right there in an online client portal, easily visible every time the client logs in, it’s a reminder of your initial agreement that he can review at any time on his schedule.
- Keeping Your Client Up to Date: One of the most common client complaints is “I don’t know what’s going on with my case.” Attorneys often get busy handling the actual legal matter and don’t prioritize keeping the client informed, or don’t realize the importance of checking in when it looks from the client side like nothing is going on. Some attorneys make a point of scheduled check-ins and letters going out when certain milestones are reached, but that takes up attorney or staff time that might be better used elsewhere. Technology alleviated this problem to a great degree with the advent of email; a templated notification could be sent out quickly and easily when a certain event occurred. Now, the availability of web-based client portals has nearly eliminated the problem. When a client receives automatic notifications through the system and can log in and view her case file at any time, there is never any doubt about the progress of her case.
- Communication: Communication goes hand in hand with the “What’s going on with my case?” issue. A significant portion of complaints to disciplinary bodies include an allegation that the attorney failed to communicate with the client. In this area as well, technology has been helping for years: voice mail gave us one additional way to touch base with clients, since coordinating return calls could be difficult; email gave us a quick way to reach out at any hour of the day or night—we couldn’t return calls at midnight, but we could answer email then. And online portals have taken that solution to the next level by providing the option for automated notifications, the ability to request appointments electronically, and a mechanism to exchange secure messages whenever the attorney or client has a free moment.
In the end, the attorney-client relationship hinges on the client feeling that you’re responsive to his needs, and that you’re engaged in his case and care about his issue.
Evolving technology provides an opportunity for you to demonstrate those things to your client not by taking time out from the case to update him, but simply by working the case and letting him observe your progress in the case file.