How to Manage Expectations Around Client and Staff Communication in Your Small Firm

This article is the third installment in a 3-part series on law firm communications by  Jared D. Correia, Esq. Read Part II here

I’ve got good news, and I’ve got bad news.

You’ve heard that before.  So, why do people say it?  (Yes, I know they say it because they quite literally have good news and bad news.)  It’s a device.  Nobody wants to be like, ‘X really terrible thing happened.’  There needs to be a buffer; and, the buffer is the old line.  It’s about setting expectations, in the case, lowering them.

To this point, in this series, we’ve talked about client communications and staff communications.  Now, let’s talk about how you set-up and manage expectations for those communications.

Setting and Managing Expectations with Clients.  In many ways, it’s easier to set expectations with clients, than it is to set expectations with staff.  This is, in large part, due to the fact that you can’t tell clients certain things: You can’t promise results.  You can’t effectively compare past results to future performance.  You can’t compare your services to another lawyer’s.  When you’re sitting down and talking with clients about their cases, you’re kind of like a stockbroker.  The place where you access space is discussing ways that clients may contact you.  Maybe you don’t want texts at all hours of the night, or at all.  Say so.  Maybe you want to have the flexibility to respond to emails within 24 hours, but not immediately; so, tell your clients that.  Perhaps you prefer communications coming in via a specific channel, or you want to encourage clients to use a client portal.  Talk to them about that.  Include a communications clause with expectations in your fee agreement, and explain it to your client, before acquiring their informed consent.

Just be certain, that if you tell your clients that you want something done one way, that you provide the appropriate access avenue.  If you want your clients to use a client portal, make sure you understand how to use it, and that it’s set-up and ready to roll before you offer the option.  Test it first.  Similarly, if you prefer texts from clients, make sure you have a tool for managing the inflow.  Once you tell your clients to do something one way, if you can’t manage that, it’s gonna make you look real bad.  That’s called motivation.  

Setting and Managing Expectations with Staff.  Staff management is a deeper enigma for many attorneys than client management.  While lawyers have been trained to manage clients’ cases, at least, no lawyer was ever trained in law school to manage staff.  But, poor staff management can have devastating consequences for lawyers.  The most serious of which is embezzlement, but which also extends to things like your staff not really liking you because you micromanage the hell out of them or because a lack of expectations creates far more uncertainty and doubt than work of consequence.  In terms of staff management, there are three things law firm managers should do, which they don’t do very well.  In the first instance, create an actual onboarding program, including training, which is more substantial than the expression of the firm desire that the new employee ‘get to work’.  Second, build out workflows for everything the law firm does, from substantive matters to administrative tasks, so that everybody has milestones for each action they perform.  If you do this right, your training program has practically designed itself.  Third, make sure that communication channels remain open.  Lawyers love to hunker down in their offices, and dream on obscure challenges of precedent.  But, even if your workflows are boss, you still need to make time to talk with your staff and direct reports on a regular basis.  Allow them the opportunity to ask questions, provide updates and clarify things.  In this way, not only will your internal office relationships improve, but your law practice will become much more efficient.

As with clients, however, you must provide your staff with the tools to get the job done.  If you’re asking your staff to develop workflows, offer them a shareable palette with which to do so, and provide your insights into the build.  If you want regular meetings, don’t regularly reschedule them.  If you promise input and efficiency to your staff, it’s on you to come through, and on them to follow-through.

Consequences.  The implementation of consequences is a difficult thing for lawyer managers to embrace, as many of them shade shy and passive-aggressive.  Most lawyers are more likely to privately seethe at clients or coworkers who do not meet their expectations, than to have a frank conversation about their impressions.  This can go on for years, and distrust only builds.  It’s better to have regular communication outlets to blow off that steam.

That being said, it’s your business; and if you have to act, you have to act.  So, if a client continues to flout your communication expectations, thereby endangering the representation as a whole, you’ve got to be wiling to fire that client.  Similarly, if an employee is not getting on board with clear policies and procedures, it’s time to fire him.  Tear off the band-aid, and opt for a more permanent solution.

About the author

Jared D. Correia, Esq. is the CEO of Red Cave Law Firm Consulting, which offers subscription-based law firm business management consulting and technology services for solo and small law firms. Red Cave also works with legal institutions and legal-facing corporations to develop programming and content. A former practicing attorney, Jared has been advising lawyers and law firms for over a decade. He is a regular presenter at local, regional and national events, including ABA TECHSHOW. He regularly contributes to legal publications, including his column, ‘Managing,’ for Attorney at Work, and his ‘Law Practice Confidential’ advice column for Lawyerist. Jared is the author of the American Bar Association publication ‘Twitter in One Hour for Lawyers’. He is the host of the Legal Toolkit podcast on Legal Talk Network. Jared also teaches for Concord Law School, Suffolk University Law School and Solo Practice University. He loves James Taylor, but respects Ron Swanson; and, he tries to sneak Rolos when no one is looking.





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