Please join us in welcoming guest blogger, Maria Greco Danaher, shareholder at Ogletree Deakins. Maria regularly represents and counsels companies in employment-related matters. She specializes in representing management in labor relations and employment litigation, and in training, counseling, and advising human resource departments and corporate management on these topics.
From an attorney's perspective, client trust is critical. It is the glue that holds the team together. We do more than simply represent our clients - we have a working relationship with them. That means that everyone has to be on the same page, trusting each other to work towards the same goals, all the time. While the need for client trust may seem obvious, it is sometimes overlooked, and often taken for granted in modern law practice. In this blog post, we’ll discuss the dangers that exist when client trust is lacking, how to increase trust, and the critical role that an attorney’s work habits play in the attorney-client relationship.
The Dangers of a Lack of Client Trust
Attorneys continually look for ways to create and execute on a winning strategy. How do they go about building the strategy that will achieve desired results? One key factor in any plan for success is an effective attorney-client relationship. The strength of that relationship is determined by the level of trust that the client has for the attorney.
Simply put, when client trust is compromised, things start to go wrong. When attorney-client trust is lacking, the client often will consult with other people in his or her network to determine whether or not the attorney is on the right track. This creates delays in the process, which adversely affect deadlines and, ultimately, affect the overall strategy. As deadlines are missed and recommendations are second-guessed, tension builds. This, in turn, limits the ability of the attorney to be effective, and puts mutually-desired outcomes at risk.
The bottom line is this: a lack of trust has a material impact on outcomes – and when an attorney’s work product is affected, it inevitably affects the firm in terms of revenue and client retention. If a relationship with a client is damaged, it is highly likely that the client will disengage with the firm and seek other counsel. Trust should always be a priority for attorneys.
How to Build Client Trust
To build trust with clients and create an effective working relationship, an attorney must be sure that the client has a clear understanding of the purpose of that relationship and the role of the attorney in the process. In other words, it should be made clear to clients that the attorney’s main goal is to achieve client goals, and that the attorney will work effectively and efficiently to reach those client goals.
How to build trust in an attorney-client relationship:
- Spend time listening to clients, working to understand the basis of their business, their concerns, and what they hope to achieve.
- Help clients to understand the attorney’s role, and what the attorney plans to do for them to move things in the chosen direction.
- Understand the client’s policies and processes, because understanding the “how” provides the context necessary to act in the best interests of the client.
- Emphasize transparency. This is a two-way street. Clients need to be completely open with their attorney, in order for the attorney to help them. In return, the attorney should always be completely open with their clients.
Efficient Work Habits Build Trust
Three primary work habits assist in building the trust that is so necessary for an established and long-term attorney-client relationship: (1) responsiveness; (2) regular communication regarding status; and (3) accurate and efficient timekeeping methods.
Responsiveness: In this age of mobility and electronic communication, there is no excuse for delaying a response to a client request for information or advice. If for some reason a substantive response must be delayed, a quick e-mail, call, or text to the client with a projected time-of-response (“I’ll have this to you by COB today”) is critical. No one likes to be ignored – it creates the perception that the question is not important, or that the client is not a top-of-mind client.
Regular communication regarding status: When asked about factors common to preferred legal providers, clients regularly mention that favored attorneys communicate regularly about the status of the work they’re doing for the client. Attorneys are service providers, and are paid for the work they do. Clients want to know where the fees are generated, and how the service provided is helping to move the matter toward the chosen result. Once again, technology comes to the rescue: a quick call, e-mail, or text with a brief status report (even if it’s “no change – things are fine here”) to a client on a regular basis goes a long way in building and supporting the client’s trust that the work is moving smoothly, and that attorney time is being well-spent.
Accurate and efficient timekeeping methods: Obviously, one element of the trust between an attorney and a client is the efficient use of time. “Billable hours” always is a key factor in the assessment of attorney efficiency, making accurate and transparent timekeeping a critical factor in the attorney-client relationship. Again, technology is the key. Using technology that encourages immediate/mobile time entry (using smartphones, or even Apple watches!), enables real-time compliance (checking time entries against billing guidelines during the time-keeping process), and captures all of the actual time spent on a project leads directly to transparency, accountability, and client trust.
In the attorney-client relationship, trust is key, leading ultimately to cooperative effort and effective results. Responsiveness (evidencing understanding and communication of the client’s needs), regular communication (creating a true partnership focused on results), and accurate timekeeping (and, therefore, transparency in the billing for work done) are the keys to success in the attorney-client relationship.