The first meeting with a client can be a make-it or break-it scenario for attorneys.
“The foundation for the entire attorney/client relationship comes from that meeting,” said Allison Shields, president of Legal Ease Consulting in Port Jefferson, N.Y., who coaches lawyers on practice management and marketing.
Although lawyers may be eager to showcase what they can do and let clients know how they can help, Shields advised slowing down before you dive in with solutions.
“The most important thing to do is to really listen, more than you talk,” she said. “Listen to how the client is explaining what the issue is and dig into what the client wants to accomplish.”
Attorneys should avoid relying on a preconceived notion about what a client with a particular problem might want as an outcome, as “seemingly identical clients don’t have identical wants and needs,” Shields noted.
For example, a client might say “I want justice,” when asked what he or she is hoping for. “Make sure to follow up with the client and ask, ‘What does that mean to you?’” Shields said. Be sure to ask what they want to accomplish, and just as important, why.
“Clients may come in saying they want a specific contract, but when you ask them why and what they hope to accomplish, you may find they really need something different,” Shields explained. “Lawyers often forget to ask the ‘Why?’ question because they assume clients know what they need.”
Just as important as questioning clients about their desired outcome is understanding their expectations about service, she said.
Some clients may never have spoken with an attorney before. In a personal injury case, for example, it might be helpful to provide a flow chart or outline to help clients understand the litigation process and things such as waiting for a court date, or the cost of court fees.
By explaining the process and discussing your service as a lawyer, you have provided your sales pitch, Shields said.
Because there is so much information to absorb at that first meeting, she advises lawyers to give the client documentation he or she can take home and look at later on.
But there is one issue lawyers should affirmatively address: the cost of their services.
“Some clients will be uncomfortable asking, and if there is no discussion, both of you might be wasting your time,” she said. Provide a client with at least a range of the cost of services.
“If they want a Mercedes on a Kia budget you need to have that discussion to determine whether it’s worth continuing the conversation,” Shields said.
The first meeting is also an opportunity for you to evaluate the client.
“Definitely listen to your gut,” Shields said. Oftentimes lawyers who find themselves in a sticky situation with a client can point to at least one red flag from the initial consultation.
“This is your chance to [decide] whether or not this client is the right fit for you,” she said.