Thomas von Hahn has much more on his plate that just practising law. Asco-ordinator of the national real estate group at Blake Cassels &Graydon LLP, von Hahn is responsible for communicating the law firmbrand to clients and prospects throughout the world. That’s on top ofhis practice of advising pension funds and investors in the acquisitionand disposition of real property and mortgage portfolios, orstructuring real estate joint ventures and partnerships.
“I think one of the most important things for new lawyers to learn is they should be starting to network and consider their career development the day they enter the career of law,” says von Hahn, who is also co-chairman of the associates committee at Blakes. “They should be in a position to communicate their excitement and interest in law to their friends and colleagues that they have now, and to develop their own networks for their career.
“Your job isn’t just sitting behind a desk and grinding out paper,” he says. “At least part of the day should be spent thinking about your job, where you’re going with it, and how you’re developing a network of people who want to be in touch with you. When you have the pressures of work piled up, it’s hard to remember to focus on your own career.”
Like many large firms, Blakes has a formal client-communications initiative in place that has evolved with technology over the years. Recently, von Hahn’s practice group brought in a consultant to refine its strategy to something more focused. Lawyers in its real estate group across Canada are assigned a city in the U.S. or Europe in which they’re responsible for promotions and communications. In Vancouver, for instance, lawyers facilitate communications in Seattle; in Montreal, they reach out to Boston and New York. They target industry associations and organizations related to their practice, attend functions, and keep in touch with tightly written bulletins via e-mail. “We’re finding ways to keep clients aware of our existence, which can be a difficult thing when you’re not located where your clients are,” he says.
Torys LLP is another large firm that has a formal client-communications initiative. Partner Elizabeth Ellis oversees the firm’s knowledge management department, which is responsible for disseminating information to lawyers to pass on to clients. “In our firm, it’s the responsibility of practice areas to be aware of the legal developments that might be of interest to their clients,” explains Ellis. “As knowledge manager, I’m looking at what I can put into place in terms of technology and processes that will meet lawyer information requirements.”
Ellis is currently working on a new in-house portal that will let lawyers easily find information and developments relevant to their clients. Another part of her role is to help lawyers keep information simple. “We definitely spend the time to read the information from a non-lawyer perspective,” she says. “The point of the communications is to identify issues that clients can understand, without trying to make the clients the expert.”
She adds that associates have to be particularly attentive to communicating clearly. She says associates are used to reading complex materials, so it becomes second nature to write in that type of legalese. “When they actually become involved in working on client communications, it requires a lot of discipline to leave aside that legal drafting and go back to a plain English style.”
For smaller firms, effectively communicating to clients can be a significant challenge. Larry Stroud, president of Promarc Consulting Group Inc., which provides marketing and business-development services to law and financial firms, suggests firms develop a formal communications strategy that identifies its practice and goals. “I’ve had situations where mid- or smaller-sized firms had a half-dozen clients in a sector but didn’t realize that makes them, to a certain extent, experts in that sector,” says Stroud.
He advocates that firms “take a cruel look at their client list, even if it means rating them” to prioritize which conform best to the firm’s strategy. Clients atop the list should be contacted regularly by phone, Stroud says. “I call them ‘I love you’ phone calls; you’re just calling to see how they’re doing.” He cites one lawyer who followed his advice and learned a key client was about to make a significant acquisition. “He should have known but hadn’t been in touch with the client. Because he made that call, he ended up going on the plane wherever it was in the U.S. and being involved in the preliminary discussions.”
Allison Wolf, of legal-marketing consulting firm Shift Works Strategic Inc., agrees personal contact is integral to effective client communications. “You’re building relationships, building trust,” she explains. “What’s most important is face-to-face communications.”
While individual client meetings are not always practical, lawyers often overlook everyday opportunities they have to communicate their profession. “Lawyers all have pre-existing relationships and, really, it’s one’s network of contacts that is going to make it possible to meet people and develop business.”
Web sites are increasingly the first point of contact for clients seeking a lawyer or information — although content should be brief and easy to find. Susan Van Dyke, of Van Dyke Marketing & Communications in Vancouver, recently assisted with developing Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP’s new web site that was launched last fall.
The project included rewriting biographies for 650 lawyers and 100 practice areas. “Some lawyers went on at length in their bios, because they’d been in the field for a long time and certainly had enough content,” says Van Dyke. “But the reality is a client is not really interested in reading beyond a page. So our real challenge was taking some very senior partners and lawyers in the firm, who had some incredible experience, and following a very disciplined approach to bring a multi-page bio down to about a page. The site had to be client-oriented. It’s very tempting for lawyers and law firms to speak to themselves or other lawyers.”
The best rule of thumb in communicating with clients, in any form, is to keep it simple, agrees Catherine Mitchell of Gem Communications, which consults to law firms. “Communicate the way you’d like to be communicated with,” she says. “Put yourself in the client’s shoes.” Mitchell adds that with the proliferation of media to reach clients, communications training can be a sound investment. “Lawyers don’t get training in customer service,” she notes. “It can be good to learn how to communicate in the context of law, other than just the delivery of legal services.”
Keep it simple
Cheryl Stephens is a plain-language consultant based in Vancouver and author of Plain Language Legal Writing. She offers the following checklist for law firms to use when auditing their client communications.
o Our firm materials and precedents are easy for our clients to read and use.
o We follow plain language guidelines in written communications.
o We produce precedents in plain language.
o We define technical and legal terms in the text of the material.
o We use everyday words in their everyday meanings.
o We only use forms that are necessary, when necessary.
o We include ample white space in print material.
o We review our written material to ensure it follows modern communications standards.
o We go over all written material with our clients verbally, using plain language and checking for understanding.
o Our firm asks our clients for feedback on how well we are meeting their needs.
o We avoid jargon or we define legalese when communicating with clients.
o We explain things in appropriate detail for each client, asking for confirmation of understanding as we go along.
o We offer all clients the same assistance to avoid giving low-literacy clients special and potentially embarrassing treatment.
o We provide opportunities for clients to ask question.
o We are open to clues that our clients provide about their literacy level.