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Five tips for building trust with clients

By Jeremy Byellin
Blog Writer at Thomson Reuters

Although it isn't strictly the “practice of law,” maintaining strong interpersonal relationships with your clients is a central ingredient in any successful firm. After all, maintaining strong client relationships helps ensure that you continue to have clients, and getting new client referrals from your happy client base is one of the most affordable ways to market your firm and develop new business. Here are five tips for maintaining strong relationships with your clients.

Tip 1: Set proper expectations

You can't expect every outcome to be favorable to your client. Most of the time, compromises must be made, and sometimes, despite how strong of a legal case you believe you have, court rulings come down completely against you. It's for this reason you should not give your client any indication of your success rate.

No matter how airtight you believe the legal case to be, you may have a judge who doesn't follow the law as he or she should. Even if things look promising for your client after being in court, there's really no telling how a judge will rule until the actual ruling is handed down.

As such, instead of discussing your client's chances - which nearly every client insists on doing - all you can really say is “our legal case is strong” (if you truly believe it to be) but that “anything can happen,” and all you can do is “try our best.” Sadly, a courtroom resembles a roulette wheel on a disturbing number of occasions. But that's just the way of things, and your client shouldn't be expecting an easy victory.

Furthermore, even if you bypass the courtroom and head to the negotiation or mediation table to resolve the dispute, your client shouldn't reasonably expect not to compromise to reach an agreement.

If your client goes into the legal matter expecting a positive outcome, there's a very real chance of disappointment - the blame for which, whether it's justified or not, will almost always fall on you as the attorney.

Instead of potentially souring your client relationships with false hope, make sure your client understands the reality of legal disputes.

Tip 2: Be responsive in your communications

This seems like a minor consideration, but it goes a surprisingly long way.

If a client contacts you in any way, whether through email, phone, or any of the other myriad of forms available today, make sure to respond promptly. Even if you don't have the information he or she may be looking for, you should still respond and let them know when they can expect it from you.

The speed and regularity in which you reply shows your clients that you prioritize them and their respective cases. Moreover, regularly communicating with your clients also serves to strengthen the attorney-client relationship in and of itself.

Indeed, beyond promptly replying to clients, you should also establish patterns of regular communication, keeping in touch with them at every stage of the matter. This helps your client feel more engaged with his or her case, build trust with you, and it helps you ward off client questions before they even hit your inbox.

Law practice management software can help you manage your client communications.  With it you can access your client and matter files anytime, anywhere in order to promptly respond to clients.  You can even send communication to clients via a secure client portal.  And, if you need to get back to a client at a later time you can easily create a task or calendar event in the practice management system to remind you later.

Tip 3: Be on your client's side

Yes, every attorney is (or should be), by definition, acting on behalf of his or her client's best interests. But that isn't necessarily the same thing as being “on your client's side.”

Look at it this way: your client takes his or her legal problem personally; that is, he or she is personally invested in the progress and outcome of the matter.

For a number of reasons, attorneys shouldn't themselves become emotionally invested in one of their cases, if for no other reason than it often leads to bad decision-making by the attorney. But just because you shouldn't get emotionally invested in your cases doesn't mean you can't be empathetic to your client.

For example, if something seems unfair, acknowledge that to your client - even if there's nothing you can do to change it. Your client wants to feel as though you're in the trenches with him or her, not detached and radioing in strategy tactics from a secure, undisclosed location.

Tip 4: Be the best attorney you can be

It should go without saying that you should always try your best in all of your cases, but sometimes the temptation to cut corners presents itself. Maybe you know the chances of success are extremely slim; maybe you don't believe what your client is trying to do is morally right; or maybe you find yourself short on time.

None of these reasons are sufficient, however, to do substandard work for your client (and if you truly cannot do an adequate job for your client because of a moral disagreement, you should withdraw). You should approach every case with the attitude that everything you do for that client will be done to the absolute best of your ability. Your client can tell when you are giving it your best or when your engagement and passion is lacking.

Tip 5: Advocate for your client

When I write “advocate for your client,” I mean really advocate for your client. This is distinguishable from tip #4 in that this means more than just the quality of your legal work. This means your advocacy for your client's interests should be strong enough that your client knows you care about his or her case.

To put it in sports parlance, this applies to your attitude “on and off the field” - meaning, you should be a strong advocate for your client “on the field:” in court, mediation or negotiation, and in your written legal documents (although never to the point that the objective quality of your work suffers as a result), and “off the field:” when discussing the case with your client privately.

Your client should know his or her case is very important to you, and that will leave a strong, positive impression on your client.

In the end, the impression your client has of you will determine whether he or she sticks with you - or refers you to others. Of course, winning all of your cases all but ensures you will make a positive impression on your clients. But no attorney wins all of his or her cases, so it's vitally important you win your clients over the other way: by building and maintaining strong relationships.

About the author 
Jeremy Byellin is an attorney practicing in the areas of family law and estate planning. Jeremy is knowledgeable in legal technology and enjoys writing about the benefits it can bring small law firms.