Legal Practice

Gaining Clients’ Trust through the Phone: Effective Client Counseling During COVID

By now you’ve probably seen the insta quote about how you’re not working from home but rather working at home during a pandemic, which yah fact, for sure. This sudden need for many of us to telecommute isn’t due to a shift in practice but literally done to save lives so I get that it’s not business as usual. And I also get that many courts are suspended for the time being but the thing is that for those of us practicing, it’s not just about working but fulfilling our duty to our clients. If you’re still doing consultations, working through discovery, filing petitions etc., then your work product still has to be on point. And it can be weird to do so much of this without being face to face—we are used to looking our clients in the eye, literally shuffling through reams of discovery but it’s our new normal and we’re nothing if not flexible!

While I normally saw clients in person, at an office, I also represented clients from all over the state, which limited our ability to see each other in person. All my clients also experienced poverty and eventually I realized that it was too much of an ask to have them visit downtown every time we needed to work through their case. Because of those limitations, I ended up doing a ton of work with clients over the phone and through mail/email. I know that without guidance you can feel overwhelmed so I want to offer some tips on making the most of teleworking with clients:

From my experience, there are two main barriers when working long-distance with clients—trust and time. It’s hard to build trust over the phone and it’s hard to manage people’s answers and not accidentally let a call snowball into a super long conversation because suddenly clients feel like someone is listening and just keep going and going and going…

Let me tell you the first part is difficult to manage without sounding curt and then if you’re too short then there goes the trust! It’s a fine balance. And when I was new, it wasn’t easy! I remember when intake over the phone that went on for two hours because I let a client basically tell me a story, thinking that eventually they’d get to a point that would help me. I was too inexperienced to redirect and I remember looking at my notes after, feeling foolish because we had spoken for so long and nothing was relevant to the case! You must do better, bbs!

First, be upfront with clients. Tell them how much time you have scheduled for the call. Tell them what you’re going to ask and why you’re going to ask it so that they understand the purpose and are a little less cautious about giving you private information. Of course, tell them upfront that everything they tell you is confidential (explain what that means!) so that they understand it’s better to tell you the good and the ugly upfront allowing you to strategize accordingly. For example, when I did intakes for immigration, I had to ask about Inadmissibility issues, which make clients nervous because I’m asking if they entered the country without permission, and how, and how many times, and if they never met me they can cautious about telling me the truth. But I found that if I explained why I was asking—I need to know your history to see if you need to apply for waiver (and explain what a waiver is), people tended to be honest. A simple step you can do now is go through your basic intake questions and flag where you think someone may feel nervous divulging things to determine when/what explanations to give them to help further the conversation.

Its common to jump into the nitty gritty, but if you spend time upfront explaining to clients the why’s and how’s of your question, then ultimately your interviews will be much more streamlined. Take a look at what you’re asking-what is the bare minimum you can ask in the first call to make a decision about next steps? Focus on those first so clients. Admittedly, I come at my practice from working with people who had been seriously traumatized so I limited how much detail and info they had to give me so as to not retraumatize. This isn’t the time for open ended questions—not only is that making clients open up to you too soon, you also risk losing control of the conversation. When I had to ask clients about emotional abuse in their marriage I didn’t say, “tell me about the abuse, what did they do to you?” Questions like that would give me way to much information and not all of it relevant. Clients may start talking about infidelity, which sucks and hurts but doesn’t rise to the level of abuse (per immigration regs) and some instances of abuse may not register as important enough for them to mention. So learn to control the intake. I would ask clients (after explaining why I was asking these questions) if the following ever happened: did he ever push you? Did he ever pull your hair? Call you names? Tell you what you could wear?

Notice the answers are yes or no. For the questions answered in the affirmative, you go back later to get more detail, if you need it. But these short answers give you a better sense of the clients case without an overload of info.

I know I’m focusing on time a lot and in a perfect world, you’d take as long as you need. But in reality, most of you have too many cases and knowing how to managing your intakes & client interactions are important. You need to be comfortable in gently re-focusing clients and knowing when/how to ask them to pause. Time management is important not just for billing issues, but just so that you gain a better sense of how to do your work effectively and efficiently. It may seem like taking hours and hours with a client is the right thing to do, but you’re providing the client a service and being effective, empathetic, and strategic is the best service you can give them.

It may seem like basics—respect clients enough to explain to them what you’re doing; be respectful of their emotions, mental health, and time—these things aren’t ground-breaking. Yet, I saw experienced attorneys who didn’t know how to navigate client conversations without yelling at clients (and clients yelling at them); I saw new attorneys overwhelmed with information and facts because they couldn’t manage the conversation and I saw cases that went south because attorneys never gained their clients trust. Taking some time to plan out for these conservations can make such a difference in how you’re able to do your work, especially if you’re now limited to phone and email.

What do you to gain clients trust when they can’t see you?