I recently met a group of lawyers at a dinner I attended, where the conversation turned to how available attorneys are to their clients these days. One woman, who practices securities litigation at a large Silicon Valley law firm, described the frequent early morning calls she takes at home to counsel her East Coast clients. One of the more senior lawyers at the table gave her the gentle advice that she should create firm boundaries with clients and limit work to traditional business hours. In an era where contact between clients and attorneys is one speed-dial away on a cell phone, that’s easier said than done.
Many industries are transforming the way they do business, allowing workers to work remotely or offering flexible hours. Not every client’s situation is the same, and a blanket rule about client communication will be an obstacle to developing the best relationship possible with each client. The legal profession is a services industry, which has to change as the client’s circumstances change.
For lawyers, every interaction with clients is like a sales call, and every good salesperson knows that to develop the best connection, you need to mirror your customer. For a salesperson, mirroring means reflecting back to the customer their body language, hand gestures, word choice, facial expressions and other aspects of communication. A great salesperson replicates his customer’s communication style subconsciously and effortlessly, instilling a sense of confidence and affinity.
Upon reflection, I noticed that not all clients expect responses to their late night emails. In fact, one asked me during an email exchange after 8:00 p.m. whether I have kids and why I’m not home with them. She and I have developed a good relationship such that the questions were not intrusive. However, the dialogue alerted me to how my work style doesn’t match hers, and I gradually modified how and when I interact with her. I may still draft a case summary for her at 8:00 p.m., but I will not hit “send” on it until the following morning. My dedication to the client is no different, but at least the time stamp on my email does not make her uncomfortable.
On the other hand, I have a corporate client whose in-house legal team works evenings and weekends. The nature of the client’s business means that questions arise on the weekend and my availability and flexibility is paramount to them. I have set the precedent that they can schedule calls with me on a weekend or contact me on my personal cell phone if I’m not in the office. While the senior lawyer from the dinner I attended would be horrified to hear this, it has garnered me favor with an important client.
Relationships with clients are strengthened when the clients perceive commonalities with their attorneys. The key is in the client’s perception, not necessarily the attorney’s practice. Learning about your client is critical to the effective representation. When representing an individual, that means learning not just about their matter, but also the client as a person and as a worker. Is the person a night owl or an early riser? Do they prefer communications by phone or email? When representing a corporate client that means learning about the company culture as well as the individuals who will be your points of contact. Taking this information and mirroring it back to the clients while remaining dedicated and authentic in your representation of them is a constant work in progress, but work that pays off as it strengthens the client’s confidence in you.