How To Handle Needy Clients (& Still Get Work Done!)

Whether you’re practicing in large corporate firm or small mom-and-pop shop, as an attorney, you’ll keep facing the same issue: lengthy client consultation.

It may be in-person or over the phone, but lengthy client conversations happen, and they cost your firm money. Unfortunately, you can’t always bill these consultations as a client call.

In fact, keeping up with the issues your clients face is part of the job. It’s important to address client concerns, lay out case timetables, and explain the legal process. However, clients often can’t tell the difference between a legal issue and one, well, for a different type of professional—the psychiatrist.

“Clients want to talk about things that have nothing to do with the legal work I have to do. They ask the same questions that you can’t answer: ‘When will this be over?’ or, ‘Do you think (this) will happen?’ You’re tired of telling the client, ‘I don’t know, but just be patient.’ The client calls and says he “read” this, or “heard” this,’ or worse, ‘My friend had a case like this and…’” recalls Brian Tannebaum in his Above The Law article, “Strengthening the Attorney/Client Relationship.”

The problem is, law is personal.

For the small-business owner faced with the risk of losing his legacy, successfully passing on a business to his children that he built for decades from the ground up is no small issue at all. The woman filing for divorce or fighting for custody of children is understandably emotional. Imprisonment or freedom is, for many, a choice between life or death.

Everyday occurrences for attorneys are special occasions—and mostly stressful ones—for clients. Nevertheless, attorneys can’t play therapist to every needy client.

So how can you avoid unnecessarily long client consultations? Try empowering your assistant.

Train your assistant to handle those difficult client calls. For example, a legal assistant should understand the legal process and be aware of specific case updates or news to answer most client questions. He or she can certainly learn to disarm angry clients or soothe anxious ones.

Make sure it doesn’t seem like you are dismissing your clients. For example, don’t use phrases like “let me hand you to my assistant.” Instead, say things like “Mary handles your invoices,” or “John is really the person you should speak to…”

Get in the habit of handing off certain business or client calls to your assistant, that way your clients are comfortable hear his or her voice.

More than that, make sure your clients are aware of your assistant’s extensive expertise. Assistants come in all shapes and sizes. Because of the technical and complicated nature of law, legal assistants stand apart in specialization and certification.

Not to mention the billable hour of your assistant is less cumbersome than senior partner time.

When you have particularly needy clients, don’t shirk their calls. Due diligence involves, sometimes, a bit of handholding. Give your assistant a quick brief about the specific needs of your client, and have them handle status update phone calls or emails. Your assistant should always keep a tone of confidence and authority.

The idea is to empower your assistant, not enfeeble your clients.

Assistants shouldn’t, obviously, handle all communication. But, to keep up with the demands of your practice, there’s nothing wrong with managing the time of your clients and your staff more efficiently.

With this in mind, make sure you hire an experienced and knowledgeable legal assistant. With so many lawyers and legal professionals out of work, there’s labor-lost when it comes to hiring the right man or woman for the job. Consider looking for a person with a psychology background, as that’s the role they frequently play.

Start by writing a job description for the ideal candidate. Then, include adequate training that should include, for example, client interaction guidelines.

Boost the attorney-client relationship at your firm by not actually handling the relationship, yourself.

-WB

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