One-on-one meetings with clients is a cornerstone of the legal profession. It’s how you connect with them, it’s how you gather information and impressions, and it’s vital that you polish your personal presentation to do this effectively.

The initial meeting sets the tone for your client relationship. It can be difficult, especially early in your career, to set aside the nervousness you’re feeling, project confidence, and still make the personal connection with a client.

The way to engage with clients on their terms can be tackled with a combination of preparation, research, and practice. Although each case is different, there are common denominators in dealing with clients. Here are four strategies to add to your toolkit.

Engaging your client

1.   Develop a checklist of key questions for initial client meetings

It’s certain that the client is experiencing emotions in a different way than you are. In one study, attorneys estimated how many of their clients felt frustrated: Attorneys estimated 8 percent of the clients—but actually, 40 percent of the clients reported frustration. While attorneys are good at gauging the anxiety level of their clients, they tend to underestimate their sense of urgency about their situation, as well as the amount of relief a client feels after consulting an attorney.

Your quick analysis of these statistics might tell you that as an attorney, you have more power than you realize to set the tone for your relationship. You have the power to reassure and inform. Setting yourself up with a checklist of key questions will help you shift more easily between reading your client’s feelings, engaging in active listening, and doing a thorough investigation of their situation.

Active listening is a learned skill—one that promotes trust and openness from clients, and that improves your understanding and comprehension. A well-crafted checklist will relieve some of the pressure you’re feeling.

2.   Create reasonable expectations

It can be difficult to find the middle ground between promoting your services and sticking to the facts. In the first meetings with clients, it’s easy to slip in predictions that include hard numbers.

However, you’ll develop a better relationship with your clients if you stick to the facts. More than 40 percent of clients hire an attorney because they believe that they need them to handle their issue.

Your clients are looking to you for expert advice and guidance. Resist the urge to treat the meeting as a sales pitch. Your presentation is what influences your client in their ability to trust you and to believe that you are their best advocate. Every case is different, outcomes can never be predicted with 100 percent certainty, and your customer deserves to be guided in their expectations with facts, not hopes. 

3.   Don’t deliver bad news like a lawyer

This is an essential skill in engaging with clients. As their legal representative, you are dealing with their issues at a factual and logical level. When you must deliver news that you know will be upsetting, it’s essential that you do it with empathy and understanding.

Remember that clients are already anxious, and respecting their emotions will make you stand out as an attorney. Give them time to process the information. Be prepared to listen. It’s one of the most difficult balancing acts in the attorney-client relationship. In the end, your clients will remember how you respected their emotional response, and that will pay off in customer satisfaction and referrals.

4.   Create a welcoming environment

Physical surroundings are important to set the tone of your client encounters. This can be a difficult thing to evaluate from a client perspective. Engage your staff and do an actual walk-through of what visitors to your office encounter. If they arrive at a separate entrance than you do, follow their actual path to your lobby.

Sit in the chairs they will sit in, look around from their perspective, and listen. How comfortable is your seating area? Is the coffee fresh? Is the carpet clean? First impressions should be perfect—no distractions or inconvenience. Talk to your receptionist about their ideas for improving the waiting area—they’re in the best position to see what your clients need to be comfortable.

Conclusion

Engaging with clients on their terms requires consistency on your part. Working effectively with your clients is both a skill and a gift—always be ready to improve and re-visit how well your relationships are progressing. Treat your clients with respect by remembering their position, acknowledging their obstacles and considering their experience of your meetings.

It’s not always easy or natural to actively listen, shift your perspective to the client’s, or slow down. Having a checklist and routine, sticking to the facts and realistic numbers, and focusing on the client’s possible case, rather than signing a contract, will help you form good listening habits and engagement.

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Scott Distasio is an auto accident attorney in Wesley Chapel. His firm focuses on all types of personal injury cases and holds the responsibility to provide clients with outstanding service in high regard. To see what legal wisdom he shares next, follow @scottdistasio on Twitter.