CLIENT RELATIONSHIP BUILDING
Successful law firms are becoming more integral partners with their clients. Through the use of technology, law firms are providing services beyond legal advice, including assisting clients with better understanding their business, streamlining access to legal services, improving communication, and helping clients better control their legal spending. For law firms, connecting with clients can lead to better relationships, a more fulsome understanding of the client’s business, improved communication, and higher overall client satisfaction with the firm. For clients, demanding a more robust relationship with law firms can lead to better representation, more accurate billing, and a true sense of partnership on legal work.
Relationships between clients and lawyers are fundamentally about trust – trust in legal advice, trust that both sides understand the other, trust that billing is fair, etc. – and technology can help to remove some unnecessary barriers that often inhibit trusting relationships. This post will examine several types of technology that can help law firms and clients to achieve quality representation and build relationships.
Matter Management. Central to a client-focused law firm is good matter management. Law departments, in particular, feel constant financial and business pressures to perform their jobs but not cause unnecessary delays for the business. Outside counsel law firms can take steps to better serve their clients by implementing technology and processes designed to help their clients achieve high-quality, efficient results.
Client Portals. A common fear (and sometimes a well-founded fear!) is that every time a client picks up the phone and calls their attorney, the billable time clock starts. For simple requests such as resending a document, clients dread calling the firm and the lawyer dreads getting pulled away from other work to attend to the request. Clients often have to wait for a lawyer to respond, adding to the frustration. The simple solution is a self-service client portal hosted by the law firm that enables clients to access their documents on an as-needed basis.
Client portals are easy to set up and maintain and offer functionality beyond simple document sharing. These portals are typically web-based and can be a collaboration platform for law firms and their clients where clients can access calendars with key matter dates (such as filing dates, court dates, etc.), share documents and folders of documents, gather and store key client information, quickly send bills (and get paid!), and communicate via instant message or other means.
Clients will be happier with around-the-clock access to their information, rather than waiting for a lawyer to respond. Lawyers will be happier, spending less time retrieving information for clients or answering informational questions that pull them away from other projects or take up unnecessary time.
Metrics and Data Analysis. Law firms are in a unique position to help businesses understand their legal exposure and potential issues through the use of matter metrics and analysis. Firms track many of the key data points through their time entry processes and through task codes. Using billing analysis, reporting can help paint a picture of matters for clients and can help identify trends or pain points. For example, through billing data and proper matter classification, a firm could help a retail client identify locations with a high number of employment claims that may indicate a problem with a manager or help a real estate client identify common market trends that can help in contract negotiation. Tools like Accurate Legal Billing can help firms dive into their billing data and produce reports to gain insights that can be critical to their client’s business. Though not what might be seen as a traditional legal function, firms can help clients to make sense of their legal data and improve their business operations.
Matter Planning and Budgeting. Creating appropriate budgets for cost-conscious clients requires a true understanding of the work including the estimated amount of work to be done, key matter milestones, legal personnel working on the matter, and potential issues that may require budget changes. Clients appreciate clarity in the budgeting process and the firm’s often defaulting to blanket discounts on services because they do not have the insight into their own operations needed to develop accurate budgets.
This is where a fulsome practice management platform can assist firms with developing accurate, complete budgets, even for the most budget-conscious clients. The key to making a matter work for every budget is proper attorney assignment and leveraging personnel effectively. Accurate Legal Billing provides that information needed by managing lawyers to delegate work to the right timekeepers to keep the budget in check and achieve results for the client. By using data to develop an appropriate budget, law firms can increase revenue, retain more work from established clients, deepen existing relationships, and free up business development time to focus on expanding the client base.
Calendaring and Deadlines. In the past, calendaring was a laborious process, often done on paper. Clients had to call or email law firms to find out about deadlines or matter timelines, creating an information bottleneck. Technology can help create a seamless calendaring process that can be shared through client portals. Firms can scan notice documents and have the filing dates and due dates automatically populated on a calendar shared with the client. Law firms can then follow-up with clients with adequate time to make decisions. Law firms can build client relationships through anticipating client needs, helping clients plan and strategize. Automating these administrative functions can increase transparency and efficiency.
Billing Transparency. It will come as no surprise that billing is one of the most difficult of all interactions between law firms and clients. Clients often provide extensive outside counsel guidelines to firms on what is acceptable to bill for, how to categorize billed time, etc., but a large percentage of clients still report paying higher bills than they expected to pay. Law firms must be focused on institutionalizing respect of client guidelines to foster enduring relationships with clients who are under enormous pressure to keep costs low and who have an increasing number of options, whether building an in-house team or through use of technology, to do the work traditionally outsourced to outside counsel.
Billing Best Practices. Establishing billing best-practices can help clients and law firms avoid surprises in the billing process. Communicating early in the engagement about how attorneys will bill their time and then enforcing these requirements can lead to less negotiating when the bill is rendered, less time written-off or discounted, and a higher fee realization rate. Guidelines, including budgeting, make this process more predictable for clients and law firms. These conversations can help build relationships as both client and lawyer come to understand each other’s businesses and needs. Accurate Legal Billing can help law firms build these agreements into their billing practices so that bills are generated accounting for any arrangements and guidelines. Rendering accurate bills builds trust between law firms and clients, helping to demonstrate the value law firms can provide to clients, rather than providing a convenient reason to reduce the amount
Reporting. By establishing billing best-practices, law firms and clients can identify what they want the end goal of the engagement to look like. To track progress towards this goal, firms should review their own billing data and get into the routine of sharing this information with clients. Good data will enable law firms to evaluate success with following billing guidelines, identify areas of success and where to improve, provide clients with a clear picture of what they are paying for, and build trust in the relationship. Any legal billing software firms used should make reporting easy and accessible. Accurate Legal Billing can provide the functionality needed to make reporting a part of the relationship between the law firm and its clients.
Communication Tools. Email still rules the legal sector landscape, but the increasing use of other types of communication tools warrants consideration by law firms. Tools like Slack, instant message and chat services, and text messages have entered the legal space and have helped clients and lawyers communicate more directly and in real-time. Document co-authoring tools help clients and lawyers collaborate, speeding the document drafting process. Client portals allow clients and lawyers to exchange private messages related to matters outside of the email chain and can help keep all parties on task and working efficiently. Not all clients will want to move away from email, but with more options on the market, law firms should make these tools available so clients can choose what works best for them and their business needs.
In this increasingly pressurized environment, the keyword for law firms is and will be 'value'. First, how is your firm adding value for your clients? Second, how is your firm demonstrating it values your client? Law firms must show that they value their clients and implement technology to help serve clients more effectively. This is where the use of advanced and intuitive software such as ALB can help by automizing the invoice preparation as well as the submission process.