Meeting in person with clients has long been central to attorney-client communications. But like almost everything in our daily lives, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our ability to communicate face-to-face.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, attorneys have increasingly turned to virtual platforms to provide legal services to clients, both inside and outside of the courtroom. While these technologies have proven invaluable in helping attorneys continue to provide essential legal services to their clients, they have posed problems for establishing and maintaining client relationships. Video conference tools have been shown to cause burnout, fogginess and feelings of alienation in users and can inhibit trust.
Keeping open lines of communication with clients is challenging in the best of the times, and these unprecedented changes have impacted our ability to provide the counsel and support our clients need. From Zoom proceedings to virtual depositions to data sharing and privacy concerns, client communications in the virtual age present unique challenges for attorneys.
But improving how we communicate in these uncertain times will only help us better serve our clients — and help us move cases successfully to resolution. Here are four tips for effective client communication in the virtual age.
Focus on the Why
The rapid changes that COVID-19 has brought to the legal field have been difficult for even attorneys to keep pace with. For clients with more limited knowledge of how the legal system works, understanding the impact of these changes on their case can be nearly impossible.
That’s why it’s more important than ever to make sure that every communication with clients starts with the “why.” Why does this information matter for their case? Why are you sharing it with them? What impact will it have?
Managing their expectations is critical. For example, they may have a twelfth setting for a trial date and expect that their case will go forward without the context of what that setting practically means. It’s important to help them understand what their docket setting means for the probability of their case actually being tried. Communicating the “why” of information you share will help them better understand where their case stands.
Use Client-Friendly Language
Make your communications easily and quickly digestible for your clients. Remember that they are not legal experts and are less familiar with the terminology and language attorneys use every day.
Using layman’s terms in our client communications helps ensure that they understand the information you convey and can make better, more informed decisions about their case. It also indicates that you understand them and their perspective and helps you provide more effective counsel.
Zoom, email and other forms of technology have become mainstays of client communication. But you should also consider sending text messages to your clients, particularly to convey time-sensitive information or important reminders. Texts enjoy a 98% open rate, and 95% of text messages are opened within 5 minutes.
It’s not enough just to adopt virtual communication tools, though. Just as you are adjusting to using Zoom and other virtual video conferencing tools in your work life, so too are your clients. But unlike in many industries, the stakes of a Zoom hearing or a virtual discussion of their legal options for your client are high. You want to ensure that both you and your client can communicate effectively through virtual channels. After all, you don’t want your client to be the one who forgets to hit mute during a Zoom deposition, for example, and says something damaging for the case.
To head off potential issues, have practice sessions with your client where you walk them through the process of using the virtual platform and go over appropriate decorum and behavior during Zoom legal proceedings. Clearly communicate the expectations — and the stakes for the client of mishaps or poor behavior. Give them an opportunity to ask questions and make sure they are comfortable with the communication tools being used.
For most of us, frustrations are running high. Long court delays, difficulties adapting to new technologies, and financial stress can cause us to be less patient than we might otherwise be. That goes for both attorneys and clients.
Being empathetic to your client can help head off frustrations or impatience that can hamper effective communication or damage your relationship. Your clients are facing a host of difficult decisions made even more challenging by current circumstances. Deciding whether or not to accept a settlement, for example, is more complicated for clients in these difficult times. They may need to take a hard look at whether it is worth the increased risk and emotional turmoil to continue on with the case for perhaps another year, and they may need to face making very difficult decisions.
Conveying empathy is also more difficult over video conferencing platforms. But displaying compassion and honoring the dignity of the difficult circumstances your clients face can go a long way towards helping you provide the counsel and support they need to reach the right decision for them.