"Approximately 75% of all grievances filed against lawyers are the result of poor communication." * If you want to minimize the likelihood of a communication breakdown with your clients, here are some recommendations.
Explain How You Want To Communicate To Your Client Up Front: This should be discussed during your first meeting and preferably outlined in your engagement agreement. If you prefer phone calls or emails, explain that. If the client needs to talk to you immediately, explain the best course of action (cell phone?). If you're not available, then who should the client ask for? If you prefer that clients communicate with other lawyers or staff in your office, that should be explained up front and their contact information should be provided. If it is during non-business hours, how can you be reached (if at all)? Get all of these details ironed out up front.
Explain the Process: A very common complaint from consumers of legal services is that they didn't understand how the process was going to play out in advance and/or they didn't know what was going on during the process. Make sure you explain in plain English how the process works, the steps involved and what to expect. Use pictures, flowcharts or graphs when appropriate. If you don't have a written document or brochure which explains all of this, then build one and make sure every client gets it. Go over it with them during the first meeting to make sure you're both on the same page.
Engage in Proactive Communication: To address the "I never knew what was going on" problem with clients, consider sending weekly emails to clients letting them know where you are in the process, what you're waiting on, and what the next step is. This will go a long way in ensuring that your clients are informed and happy. If you can't easily ascertain the status of any particular matter, that is evidence of an organizational problem. Organizational problems can be solved in a variety of ways, including the use of a matter/case management program.
Engage in Regular, Descriptive Billing: Remember that your monthly invoices can be excellent explanations of what has occurred. Make sure your time entries are detailed and avoid legalese or technical language the client might not understand. Even if you're working on contingent fee or your fee isn't due until a process is complete, it's still a good idea to send clients zero balance invoices with a full narrative just so they're aware of what you did last month. Many lawyers have difficulty billing regularly and if they're in a contingent fee type of case, they don't even bother tracking their time. There are many good reasons for tracking time in contingent or flat fee cases, not least of which is the documentation of work completed.
Engage in Good Email Management: Today, keeping track of what communication between you and your client is often a matter of email management. You don't have to print all of your email and I would actually discourage you from printing it. It can all be tracked, shared and maintained electronically. However, clients view an email the same as a phone call or voice mail left for you. If you authorize your clients to communicate with you via email, it's a good idea to make sure you reply to every email or at least acknowledge receipt within 24 hours. If you don't have time to respond to a client email timely, then delegate it to someone who can. Many lawyers feel buried in email, and receive more than they can reasonably respond to. As a result, important client communications can get lost in the mix. Keeping track of and responding timely to email is as important as keeping track of and responding to paper correspondence delivered via the USPS. Unfortunately, email tends to come in much higher volume than paper snail-mail. You need a plan to deal with it efficiently. If you don't have a plan, then you shouldn't tell clients that email is an acceptable way to reach you. It's really that simple.
*Attorney-Client Agreements Toolkit from Lawyers Mutual Liability Insurance Company of North Carolina. See http://tinyurl.com/lbcdmbu for the entire publication.