The Empathetic Lawyer and Client Retention

By Anita Lerek

You know you must spend time and money to look for clients. And you know that client satisfaction is clustered around fees, ease of process and responsiveness.

But are all these factors sufficient to fill up your plate especially in these times of fierce competition from unregulated numbers of lawyers in the marketplace? And then there are the alternative service providers operating with much lower overhead based on using contract lawyers, virtual workspaces and computer efficiencies. And the accounting houses are horning in on the traditional legal monopoly, with captive firms and multipoint client relationships and solutions.

How can you push back in this crowded legal ecosystem?

Research studies rather than marketing gurus are offering fresh insights into the client and the public’s experiences with the legal system that can benefit lawyers in winning and keeping clients.

Let’s look at some specific experiences of the legal system by users and clients.

Lawyers can be out of touch with client feelings, as can be seen by these responses to a survey of public views on justice (What is Access to Justice — Canadian data — Trevor Farrow):  

  • “I don’t have much faith in the lawyers and the system.”
  • “The language of justice tends to be a bit … foreign to most people.’’

We lawyers are so comfortable in our acquired language of law that we lose sight of how strange it is to outsiders, just like any foreign language is. To have vital personal or business matters tied up in a language that a client does not understand can be disorienting and alienating. Research (Understanding the Legal Consumer, Legal Trends Report 2018 — U.S. data) shows that lawyers are often out of touch with how their clients or prospective clients feel:

  • 33 per cent of clients feel urgency, whereas only 15 per cent of lawyers perceive urgency as part of the client experience.  
  • 40 per cent of clients feel frustration, in relation to eight per cent of lawyers who perceive frustration as part of the client experience.
  • 51 per cent of clients feel relief, but only 17 per cent of lawyers perceive relief as part [and a key part] of the client experience.

Experiencing a legal problem can be so upsetting it can make clients sick. For example: “… over half (51 per cent) of people who reported having a legal problem experienced stress or emotional difficulty as a direct consequence of having that problem. This amounts to over 5.7 million Canadians.” (Everyday Legal Problems and the Cost of Justice in Canada: Overview Report, Trevor Farrow.)

You should be mindful of the emotional toll that legal problems, personal or business, can cause an individual, with or without adequate financial resources. One legal problem such as a job termination or a debt problem can have a ricochet effect on many other aspects of a person’s life such as relations with spouse, with children etc. What for lawyers is a professional problem of process and opinion, for a client can represent a devastating diminishment of quality of life.
Another problem is that people facing legal problems often screen lawyers without hiring. For example, of those who faced a legal problem in the past two years, 58 per cent sought a consult with a lawyer they didn’t hire, and 68 per cent communicated with a lawyer they did not hire (Understanding the Legal Consumer, Legal Trends Report 2018 — U.S. data).

This finding is a surprising one. You may be spending a lot of time talking to prospective clients who never hire you. Could this be partially related to the disconnect between the two of you — the failure to talk the same language? Is this a cornerstone of trust building? As the above points indicate, it would be helpful for you to expand your pitch beyond computerized services and affordable fees, to listening and gaining an understanding of the feelings and lived legal experiences of users. Similar legal or fact situations will have a different colouring from client to client.

There are some retention tips here as well. Taking the time to teach clients some basic terms of your legal language would undoubtedly contribute to client confidence and trust. And empathizing with their stresses, urgencies and frustrations would add further glue to the relationship.

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