10 Best Practices for Transparent Client Communications
October 5, 2023
The highest calling for a lawyer is to be the trusted advisor to their clients. How do you achieve this? Supplying sound advice, of course, is critical.
Just as important is earning the trust of your client. And the best way to earn your client's trust is to be open and transparent.
The lawyer-client relationship is built on trust and not much else. We all know we can't lie to our clients, but not telling our clients things relevant to the matters we are handling is almost as bad. It breeds mistrust.
What is the biggest cause for breakdowns in attorney-client relationships?
No matter what size or sophistication of the client, breakdowns happen because of the failure to practice transparent communication. Stellar communication entails accurately providing the client with relevant and wanted information in a timely manner. If you’re not initiating frank discussions about the cost of the matter, how you plan to communicate, the chances for success, the strategy, staffing, and more, this blog will help you get your communication back on track.
According to the ABA and state bar associations, complaints by clients about their lawyers (and claims against them) often stem from the failure to inform their clients at the earliest opportunity about essential matters clearly. And attorneys don’t just need to be forthright sometimes. They need to be transparent all the time.
Your law firm’s clients value transparency
If you don't provide your clients with relevant information as soon as possible, they will inevitably find out later and wonder why you didn't tell them sooner.
If a hearing has been set, for example, let them know. If you get a call from the other side that impacts the deal negotiations, call your client. A lapse will spiral into wondering what else you may not be telling them.
If a client can't trust what you tell them about small things, there is no way they will trust your advice on big things. Transparent communication builds trust instead of sowing the seeds of doubt.
Your legal clients value your transparency so much that it can become the basis of providing your firm with a referral. Chelsey Lambert, VP of Partnerships at Smokeball describes:
“Referrals are always the best source of business for a law firm, and when you operate with integrity and have the hard conversations as soon as possible, the client will look back and remember your honesty and forthrightness, even if they don’t like what they’re hearing in the moment. Even if the client decides to seek other counsel as a result of what you tell them, as an attorney, you’d rather know that early on in the case and save yourself all the complications of discovering an attorney-client mismatch later.”
Transparency requires your leadership
Inversely, you can't assume your client will be open with you if you don't lead by example. As lawyers, we want our clients to be forthright with us about everything and get angry when they don't. But if you want your clients to be transparent with you, be transparent with them. Fail to tell them things, and they will fail to tell you things.
There was a time in the legal industry when we could get away with some lawyer hubris with clients. We didn't always feel the need to be open and communicative about our legal work. After all, we were the lawyers with all the legal knowledge and assumed client input wasn't always necessary or helpful. We could do our lawyer work and convince ourselves we only needed to talk to clients when we needed something from them or to get the bill paid.
Honest communication has always mattered
A lack of honest communication never should have existed, it certainly doesn't anymore. Clients today have more access to information than ever before. They can easily google us. They can google their legal issues.
More sophisticated clients can access tools like data analytics to learn more about matters, timing, and the lawyers' experience, including how we handle our cases and strategies. And, of course, with generative AI, client access to information and analysis is on steroids.
None of us can safely assume any longer that our clients aren't aware of legal information. They can access a lot of information if they want to. And, again, if a client learns something we should have told them, it breeds mistrust. Mistrust destroys the relationship.
What are 10 sound client transparency practices Smokeball recommends?
The most important client transparency practice is simple: if the thought crosses your mind that you should tell your client about something, you should. And do it soon. Beyond that, here are ten practices that can help you provide the transparency that improves client relationships.
- Be upfront and candid about fees and costs. Tell your client what the actual and projected costs will be. Explain why the costs and fees incurred are necessary and helpful to the client's needs.
Tell your clients about the costs and fees on the front end, not after they were incurred. When you do a budget, ensure it's realistic and accurate, not one you think will convince the client to hire you.
- Be upfront and candid about the chances of success or failure of the client's goals. Your client is entitled to know what you think, not what you think the client wants to hear. Litigators, for example, should tell their clients the actual value or exposure of the case.
- Explain to your client how you plan to handle the matter and what your strategy will be. Also, communicate any changes to your strategy. This will bolster your client's confidence in you. It may also lead to the client contributing information that will help or hurt your theories so you get a better overall result.
- When it's time to consider settlement or concluding a negotiation with a deal, give your client your opinion regardless if they want to hear it. Yes, these can be hard conversations, but not having them will only lead to more significant problems later. They pay you for your expert guidance, so you must deliver it, even when challenging.
“My experience working with consumer attorneys is that they frequently have hard conversations with clients,” Chelsey comments. “In consumer law (bankruptcy, criminal, family, probate, immigration, and similar) where difficult news has to be delivered to the client, there’s no other way to help them get to the other side of their legal issue than do tell them the realities of their situation as soon as you can.”
- Be open and honest with your clients about how their matters will be staffed. Who will do what and why? You don't want clients to discover that someone they did not know or expect is working on their matter when they receive their first invoice.
- Let your client know your philosophy and general approach to practicing law and working with clients like them. How do you generally handle matters? Is your approach "scorched earth" or something less aggressive? It’s helpful for both of you to know if your styles are symbiotic and if the attorney-client relationship will be positive and effective.
- If there are practices in which you will not engage, let your client know at the beginning of the relationship. For example, if your general practice is not to oppose requests for extensions of time from the opposing counsel where reasonable, tell your client.
- Meet your clients where they are. Don't use legal jargon that you know they may not understand. It doesn't generate trust to talk above your client. It could prejudice your case since your client can't fully participate if they don't know what you are discussing.
Discuss with your client in the beginning how you will communicate. That will facilitate transparency and satisfy any ethical responsibility about privacy protections. See ABA Formal Opinion 477R.
- When your client offers ideas about handling the matter or the strategy, listen respectfully and openly. Treat your client's ideas and views with respect and empathy. Remember, they have access to lots of information and a unique perspective. With that, continue to provide your honest opinion on their ideas.
- Insist on a two-way transparency street. You want and need your client to be open and candid with you. But remember, you will be more likely to get transparency if you are transparent with your client.
Create a safe space to share information that might be difficult for them to relay. Again, empathy and compassion can play a big role in their willingness to be forthright with you.
Being transparent with your clients isn't always easy. It takes time and sometimes means hard conversations. But in the long run, it will lead to better relationships. Delivering hard news early on is a form of focusing on the end result of the case: you can’t get there if you’re avoiding it. You must be willing to go through the challenge to get to the other side. You--and your client--will sleep better at night.
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