How Law Firms Can Manage Changing Consumer Expectations

Technology has shaped consumer expectations in recent years, particularly as smartphones continue to evolve and digital tools become a more integral part of our daily lives. People manage and execute many of their day-to-day activities online – whether on their phones or on a laptop or other device. With markedly increased remote interaction during the pandemic, legal services consumers will expect similar connection to and engagement with law firms in 2021 and beyond.

In keeping with this article’s theme of connectedness, I asked my Twitter followers “how client behavior and your response to it have changed in the past 12-18 months,” and I included some of the responses below.

Jump to Part 2 of this blog series.

Improved Communications: Internal and External

An effective communications process should be at the core of a law firm’s customer service approach; however, even the best client connection procedures will fail if a firm’s internal people, processes, and technology aren’t structured well and/or run correctly. When internal and external communications are operating at peak performance, this will inevitably help the firm boost engagement, collaboration, and operational effectiveness to drive both matter-related and marketing success.

External Communications

Oklahoma City plaintiff’s trial lawyer Rilee Harisson noted that “firms who have excellent customer service & excellent communication with clients will be the ones that succeed moving forward.” But even with an increased eye toward keeping clients in the loop and ensuring they are well taken care of throughout the life cycle of their matter or matters, lawyers need to set boundaries. As Chicago criminal defense attorney Kimber A. Russell put it, “It’s getting overwhelming that clients now really expect 24/7 availability regardless of how we set expectations.” Some crowdsourced suggestions for attorney-client communication boundary setting from Atlanta business and real estate attorney Craig Thrift (and others) included:

  • Keeping Zoom hours limited to regular business hours
  • Limiting client texting unless the situation is a true emergency, as defined by the firm at the outset of representation
  • Using an outsourced answering service or call center to handle business communications outside of regular office hours, including on weekends and holidays
  • Providing an online portal where clients can access real-time information on their matters at their convenience
  • Providing a uniquely generated cell phone number via practice management software for clients to text anytime that isn’t tied to a personal cell phone

Internal Communications

With technological resources cheaper or often free, even small businesses can look to and utilize internal communications tactics to help workers stay connected and feel like they are part of the team. Maintaining the morale of your workforce is crucial to maximizing their skills. Leaders of remote or partially remote workforces must be mindful in approaching internal communications. Even if they don’t ask for it, remote workers require more attention in order to fully understand the needs of their team and feel connected to the work they are doing. In fact, while only 63% of remote workers believe they have all of the information to do their job well, 85% feel more motivated when management provides regular updates.

Two methods for communicating internally with intention are:

  1. Work Chat: Internal comms shouldn’t just be about the law firm spitting information one way. Instead, let employees communicate with each other on a secure internal chat. In addition, communication on-the-go is one of the most in-demand features for law firms. Having a chat feature enables your employees to talk to each other instantly, send files, share photos, and more, regardless of location and without being disruptive to their workdays. 
  2. Employee Newsletters: For medium to larger sized law firms, sharing firm information via a weekly internal newsletter is a great resource for employees. Not only can it remind your team members of what’s going on in your organization, it provides a platform for internal dialogue, including a discussion of cross-selling opportunities. Include sections for key events such as important meetings, top tips for effectively working remotely, and give shout-outs to employees who have recently gone the extra mile for their colleagues and/or the company.

Increased Empathy in Professional Interactions

According to a recent survey, 62% of U.S. managers believe customers expect their points of contact within a business to have more emotional empathy in their interactions – both during and after the pandemic. Collectively experiencing a transformative worldwide event has led many of us to become more empathetic, thus increasing the amount of empathy we expect in return from those we ask or hire to assist us, like lawyers.

Historically, many law firms weren’t even empathetic toward their own employees – a legal industry cultural effect often created by law school administrations, and then noted and carried forward into law firms. With repeated and loud cries for change, the care for law students and law firm employees by established institutions is at the forefront of online discourse. As the systems that made success at all costs paramount give way to policies that incorporate diversity, inclusion, wellness, and more, it makes sense this more well-rounded attitude would also apply to our clients.

In an interview with Authority Magazine, Houston divorce lawyer Laura Dale says, “I meet very good people at one of the most difficult times in their lives. I have learned over the years that one of the most important things I can do is actively listen. If you cannot hear what your client is telling you, then you are not likely to be effective counsel. Listening is hard and takes practice. Once you are an accomplished listener then you are likely to do a good job, no matter what you do. I think I have done my job when my client says, ‘I feel a lot better now than when I got here.’”

Oregon lawyer and wellness expert Justine Fanarof, JD, MPH, RYT says, “Empathy is a skill associated with authentic care and emotional intelligence. It’s trauma informed, as it involves the ability to pause, feel, breathe, and ask ‘what happened to you’ instead of ‘what’s wrong with you.’ As the legal profession continues to evolve, the practice of empathy must be intertwined into our legal culture, ethics, pedagogy, and practice so we are more responsive and resilient professionally and personally.” 

Managing Changing Expectations in Unprecedented Times

Managing the changing expectations of a redefined workforce and the changing expectations of legal services consumers can seem overwhelming. Be mindful of taking things slow, obtaining feedback as new tactics are implemented, and remaining willing to adjust and improve over time.

Stacey Burke is a 19-year attorney who provides consulting services to law firms. She has worked with over 300 law firms in a wide range of practice areas across the United States. Over the years, she has won legal industry accolades including the President’s Award from the Houston Bar Association, and has been selected as a Texas Super Lawyers Rising Star. Her work has also been published in the Texas Bar Journal, Trial magazine, and Legal Business World. Her consulting company has won the American Marketing Association Crystal Awards for Online Marketing in Google Analytics and for Print Collateral or Direct Marketing: Company or Organization Brochure. She lives in Houston, Texas with her husband, two teenage daughters, and two French bulldogs and eats a lot of popcorn. 

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