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Keeping litigation clients happy — part 2 of 3: small business clients

keeping litigation clients happy part 2 of 3 small business clients

In the first part of this 3-part series, we discussed ways to keep individual litigation clients happy.

Today we’re discussing small business (“SB”) clients. How do you keep your SB clients happy?

The definition of what constitutes a SB varies widely. Some definitions are based on annual revenue, while others focus on the number of employees a business has. For purposes of this article, we’re going to presume that a small business has 50 or fewer employees.

Don’t be fooled by the smaller size of these businesses. They can still find themselves involved in all sorts of legal dilemmas and they frequently hire outside lawyers.

In fact, in a recent survey of 10,000 small businesses, most reported having roughly 10 legal problems per year, with the most common disputes involving contracts (37.5%), taxes (22%), or employees (14.5%).

Obviously, serving SBs can be a lucrative focus for a law firm. But what do SBs really want and expect from you in order to remain happy clients?

Read on.

Build a solid working relationship with in-house counsel

The truth is, not all SBs will have an in-house attorney. If they do, however, that person may be a founder’s cousin or former fraternity brother.

That’s not to say they’re not great attorneys, but they may be hyper-focused on laws directly pertaining to business operations (as opposed to other critical things like employment law or tax law).

Indeed, even the best in-house SB lawyers can see their legal skills deteriorate over time due to the limited scope of the business.

If you do encounter an in-house attorney who lacks experience in the issue at hand, you must treat the in-house lawyer with the utmost respect and professionalism. This is not a time for pissing matches or other efforts to make yourself look brilliant at the other attorney’s expense.

The truth is, that in-house attorney probably has more influence over your retention than anyone else in the business. So remain deferential and respectful at all times.

Take the time to understand the business

In many cases, your firm will be retained to handle an issue unrelated to the day-to-day operations of the company (a lease dispute, for example).

Even if that’s the case, spend time at your client’s place of business. Take the tour. Meet the employees.

Don’t bill for these “getting to know you” exercises.

The truth is, SB owners tend to be very proud of what they’ve built, and rightly so. If you show interest in what they’ve accomplished, they’re more likely to trust you to protect them.

Think about it; would you trust someone to start renovations on your home if they never came inside to take measurements? No matter how well that contractor understands building, they’re still building in your home, and they need to know as much as possible to do their job well.

That’s what it feels like when you rush forward with the case without fully understanding their business. No matter how well you understand litigation, you’re working in your client’s business. That business is their life. You should fully understand it before you take any actions that could permanently alter their livelihood.

If, on the other hand, you can’t be bothered to learn about their business, you’ll probably come off as arrogant, unapproachable, and unworthy of being hired. Plus, you might miss out on important details that are relevant to the case.

Take their problems seriously

Much like individual clients, SB clients may not be terribly sophisticated when it comes to litigation.

In fact, they may be terrified of the entire process and worried that they’re going to lose everything they’ve worked so hard to build.

Small business owners tend to be independent, skeptical people. They likely view lawyers with suspicion and have hired you only as a measure of last resort.

When you begin reviewing their legal dispute, it may seem very simple and straight-forward to you. Remember, however, that litigation is anything but that to them.

Do your best to put your clients at ease without demeaning them. Listen to their concerns. Explain things thoroughly in language they can understand. Take your role as a “counselor” seriously.

These simple steps will go a long way to keeping your SB clients happy.

Devise a communication strategy that works for everyone

I remember having a couple of SB clients early in my career who were completely unfamiliar with litigation, law firms, and lawyers. One client in particular would encourage his employees to “call the lawyer” any time anyone in the company had a random thought about the litigation.

Let’s just say that some of those phone calls were concise and to the point, and others were very much not.

The client was more than a little surprised when the first invoice came and all of those phone calls added up to a hefty bill.

What I learned from that situation is that I needed to get better at communicating with small business clients.

It is critical to set appropriate expectations about communication.

For example, early on, the company should identify a small number of key individuals who will communicate with you, the lawyer, on a regular basis. You should clarify that other employees will be interviewed when and if the time is right.

Additionally, it’s a good idea to have clients write down their questions or concerns and present them to you at regular intervals rather than just calling any time something “relevant” occurs to them.

That said, it is always important that you remain reachable. Return phone calls. Answer emails. If that gets too burdensome, talk to the client about ways you can communicate more effectively.

Whatever you do, remember that while litigation may be “just another day at work” for you, it is literally everything to the small business client.

They want and need to know that you’re not going to just let someone walk away with their business because of a lawsuit. They want a warrior who will protect this precious entity that they’ve built from the ground up.

Give them that, set appropriate expectations, communicate effectively, and you’ll find yourself with happy SB clients throughout the litigation process.

Up next, we’ll talk about strategies to satisfy your large corporate clients.

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