As we edge towards the end of the third quarter of 2020 and a great deal of uncertainty still remains, the one conversation I’m having over and over again with lawyers is around how to keep current clients happy and bring in new work with them. While we’ve already addressed the importance of business development activities here on Zen, we haven’t talked much about client retention, which is clearly also essential – we all know the adage that it’s cheaper to keep a current client than to do the work of bringing on a new one.

Some of us may be walking on eggshells at the moment, hoping that if we are just quiet enough, clients will be grateful that we’re here and keep using us as they have been without making any changes. But I think we can all recognize that that’s a false hope. We’re ALL under increased pressure to find ways to cut costs and show more value. Lawyers who are able to have an open and honest conversation with their clients about the ways in which they’re doing this will be the ones who continue to be valued business partners of their clients – now, and in the future as the market picks back up. So, how do we do this?

Ask the hard questions

We all cross our fingers and hope for the best. I do it with my clients too. You tell yourself, “I’m offering valuable advice, this is a service that my client needs, and I am the best one to be offering it. Plus, they have a longstanding relationship with me, so why would they either stop using me, or go somewhere else?”

Right?

But putting our heads in the sand here is NOT a solution, as tempting as it sounds. If we take a deep breath and talk honestly with our clients about how things are going, with their businesses, with our service, with the value that they’re getting, and what they’re expecting – there is a real opportunity to do better. My guess is that no one else will be asking those questions, so you’ll both stand out from your competitors AND you’ll have the chance to improve on the things that may make your clients think twice about continuing to work with you, or sending you more matters. If you’re already doing this, fantastic. But if it’s been a little while since you asked, “what would make you look at another firm or lawyer?” or “what are the ways that the pandemic is affecting you that might cause you to stop paying for our legal services for this year, next year?” NOW is the time to ask those questions. Don’t assume you know the answers – even if the answers are what you expect, the conversation may give you some additional insight into other things happening in your client’s business that you may be able to assist them with. As we’ve discussed over and over again, this isn’t about “sales” – this is about relentlessly delivering value to your clients, and to do that, sometimes you have to ask them about it.

Treat all your clients like VIPs

This is really hard to do right now – everyone is struggling with some form of low-grade anxiety because we’re uncertain about the future. So it’s easy to brush off small questions or small matters, to rush through some things quickly because you’re surrounded by chaos. But as always, we never know where the next big matter will come from, which clients are connected to our next big referral, or how any one action can make or break our reputation. How to do this?

  • Pay attention to detail: Identify how your clients prefer to communicate (by phone? Email? Text?) and respond to them using that method. Learn things about them and their lives/families. And don’t forget to read the email to make sure you’re not asking a question that’s already been responded to.
  • Be responsive: I mention responsiveness a lot, because it continues to necessitate repeating. Reply to your clients, and quickly, even if just to tell them you’re working on their request. It seems like a waste of time, but communication is SO important.
  • Go the extra mile: Find something that will wow your clients – whatever it is. This is individual for all of them – what are the ways in which you can really delight your clients, that go beyond showcasing your legal expertise?
  • Treat even your smallest clients as VIPs: Whether it’s a small matter or the biggest case in your career, treat the client with respect, respond to their emails promptly, get to know them. This will always matter more than you expect.

Treat every client interaction as a learning experience

Lawyers have very specialized expertise, but in addition to being experts on the law, they’re also sociologists and anthropologists in many ways – while your goal is to understand a person or company’s problem so that you can find the legal solution that will best suit their situation, you are also learning their stories, understanding who they are as people, and people in relation to their companies, so that you can uncover those solutions. The legal answers cannot be separated from the human stories in many cases (as much as some lawyer would like to try).

Each client interaction, therefore, is a learning experience, allowing you to uncover more information that enables you to find the best legal solution for that client or situation. I know this sounds a bit “touchy feely,” but bear with me. How do we do this?

  • Listen for the message behind the message: We all know that listening is essential for client service and retention, so that’s not news. But how well are we doing it? In the time of pandemic, it has become even MORE essential (if that’s possible). We’ve often heard the joke about the couple where the woman tells the man a story about a problem, and he keeps offering solutions, but what she really wants is someone to listen to her. While in the case of the lawyer, you’re being paid to listen, so it’s unlikely a client is coming to you *just* to listen and not solve their problem, the lesson here is to look for the message behind that conversation – what does the client really need? Do they need your expertise, or do they also need additional expertise? Do they need to sue another company and go after them for everything they have, or do they need to vent a little bit, and then hear some other options that will allow them to save face, and also money? Do they also need someone to talk to about their business worries at the moment? Might they need you to connect them to someone who isn’t a lawyer? Using some pointed and open-ended questions and then listening to the answers will allow you to identify what your clients really need in any given situation, without the assumption that you know what it is.
  • Preserve and strengthen relationships, even when the client doesn’t get what they want: Even the best lawyers aren’t always successful – but even in those cases, you can still make your client happy and loyal to you. Not every matter is going to be resolved in your client’s favor, and not every answer you have for them will be the one that they want to hear. But when you’re able to provide them with options and with the best case scenario, given the set of circumstances that you have in front of you, a reasonable person will understand that you’ve done the best you can. They’ll feel that you’ve taken the first point into account, and listened to them and their needs, and tried to develop a suitable solution. In those cases, communication is key, and as we addressed initially, that’s when you have to have the hard conversations – bad news always trumps no news, because at least you can react to, and address, bad news. Every interaction we have with our clients, even when it’s uncomfortable, is an opportunity to show them how we add value. And in the moments when it is particularly difficult, those are the moments you can really shine and strengthen the bonds of those relationships even further.
  • Work hard, then work harder: I know, that’s probably not what you want to hear in this moment when you’re already working as hard as you can. BUT, tying together these two points, the idea of needing to be heard and feeling like you’ve exhausted every solution even if the result isn’t what the client wants, is the notion that however things shake out, you want to believe that this company, this firm you’re working with cares as much about your problems as you do. The legal industry has changed dramatically over the last decade, and one of the biggest shifts has been the move towards “lawyer as partner” to their clients. Lawyers are invested in the outcomes and really care about the relationships that they’ve cultivated. They want to know about their clients’ businesses, the challenges that they’re facing, and the ways that they can make their lives easier. Clients really want to feel that lawyers care. This is communicated in all sorts of ways, of course, both when things are going well and when things are more challenging. Statistics show that most clients don’t complain; they just leave. This is the reason we have to have the hard conversations.

Client retention SEEMS like it would be easy – but it’s actually quite challenging, uncomfortable, and a lot of work – it’s more than simply being a great lawyer, adding value, and doing exceptional legal work. That’s just what gets you to the table. This is the rest. And in the time of pandemic, the rest is what will keep your clients coming back.

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Photo of Lindsay Griffiths Lindsay Griffiths

Lindsay Griffiths is the International Lawyers Network’s Executive Director. In this capacity, Ms. Griffiths is responsible for the oversight and management of day-to-day operations of the International Lawyers Network (ILN). She develops strategies and implementation plans to achieve the ILN’s goals, and handles…

Lindsay Griffiths is the International Lawyers Network’s Executive Director. In this capacity, Ms. Griffiths is responsible for the oversight and management of day-to-day operations of the International Lawyers Network (ILN). She develops strategies and implementation plans to achieve the ILN’s goals, and handles recruitment, member retention, and a high level of service to members. She is engaged in the legal industry to stay on top of trends, both in law firms and law firm networks.

In her role as Executive Director, she develops and facilitates relationships among ILN member firm lawyers at 90+ law firms in 67 countries, and seeks opportunities for member firms to build business and relationships, while ensuring member participation in Network events and initiatives. These initiatives include facilitating referrals, the management and execution of the marketing and business development strategy for the Network, which encompasses all communications, push-down efforts, and marketing partnerships, providing support and guidance to the chairs and group leaders for the ILN’s thirteen practice and industry specialty groups, the ILN’s women’s initiative, the ILN’s mentorship program, the management and execution of all ILN conferences, and more.

JD Supra Readers Choice Top Author 2019

During her previous tenure as Director of Global Relationship Management, the ILN has been shortlisted as a Global Law Firm Network of the Year by The Lawyer for 2016 and 2017, and included as a Chambers & Partners Leading Law Firm Network since 2011. She was awarded “Thought Leader of the Year” by the Legal Marketing Association’s New York chapter in 2014 for her substantive contributions to the industry, and was recently included in Clio’s list for “34 People in Legal You Should Follow on Twitter.” She was also chosen for the American Bar Association Journal’s inaugural Web 100‘s Best Law Blogs, where judge Ivy Grey said “This blog is outstanding, thoughtful and useful.” Ms. Griffiths was recently chosen for as a Top Author by JD Supra in their 2019 Readers’ Choice Awards, for the level of engagement and visibility she attained with readers on the topic of marketing & business development. She has been the author of Zen & the Art of Legal Networking since February of 2009.