Although many law firms were initially reluctant to embrace new ways of communicating with their clients, the legal sector has gradually adapted to client demand for more versatile forms of communication.
Until the turn of the century, communication between lawyers and their clients was generally a mixture of formal letters, phone calls and face to face meetings. The dawn of the internet heralded new forms of communication - primarily email and videoconferencing - which have improved over the years and been harnessed by businesses. Although many law firms were initially reluctant to embrace new ways of communicating with their clients, the legal sector has gradually adapted to client demand for more versatile forms of communication.
Email - the traditional perception of the legal industry as official and formal perhaps hindered the adoption of email by law firms at the outset of the Amazon era. These days it is difficult to find a firm which does not at least have an email address for general enquiries - and many lawyers now conduct the bulk of their client communication via email.
Videoconferencing - this was originally split into expensive high quality technology used by multi-nationals to stay in touch with their staff across the world, and the free but often lower quality services such as Skype used primarily to stay in touch with relatives. As internet speeds have increased, Skype has improved and, together with other free services such as Facetime and Hangouts, businesses can take advantage of videoconferencing to stay in touch with clients for no (or low) cost. This can be particularly useful for law firms with an international client base or whose clients prefer chatting over webcam rather than having an office meeting.
Text and WhatsApp - the humble SMS has been around for almost as long as mobile phones and can prove a useful communication tool, particularly for short reminder messages. However, many people have ditched SMS in favour of internet-based messaging services such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption which means that it is theoretically safer for lawyers who need a secure line of communication with a client compared to standard email. But the etiquette of lawyer-client communications will often preclude the use of text messaging services for anything beyond the odd case status update.
Dropbox and client portals - Dropbox is a cloud storage service which allows documents to be shared, read and edited in a secure online location. It is already extensively used by lawyers who wish to work on a file without sending emails back and forth - and the ability to control access to files or folders means that clients can be given permission to view relevant documents pertaining to their case. Similar service include Google Drive and Box - and some firms have integrated file collaboration services into their own custom built client portals.
Benefits for clients, fee earners and the firm
Modern consumers have grown used to a 24/7 economy where services are always available at the click of the button. Many of these expectations have been driven by ecommerce, leading to an "Amazon generation" who demand more immediate forms of communication outside of regular office hours. Law firms which keep clients in the loop at all stages of their case, and allow them to stay in touch in their preferred medium - whether this is an older or newer form of communication - will have an automatic advantage in terms of client satisfaction.
But it's not only clients who appreciate being able to use new forms of communication. Enabling fee earners to take advantage of modern ways of staying in touch is a key part of any remote working strategy. Whether the aim is to simply provide flexibility to staff whilst reducing office space or even to create a fully virtual law firm, remote working capability offers a better work-life balance for lawyers, brings down the costs of a fully staffed office and can lead to increased billable hours. Not only does agile working help to attract and retain talent, but this element of digital transformation can also protect the bottom line and deliver better profits.
Cybersecurity - all forms of internet communication come with cybersecurity risks. Firms have a responsibility under the Data Protection Act and forthcoming GDPR to keep client data secure; additionally they are bound by SRA rules regarding client confidentiality. So it's vital that firms are aware of the potential risks of the specific communication medium they are using (eg phishing for email) and have relevant policies and training in place to help prevent any data breach.
Clarity - the appropriate tool should be used depending on the nature of the communication. In the case of initial instructions, an email may not provide sufficient clarity for the lawyer to understand the full picture, and it may be necessary to follow up with a call or Skype discussion. Similarly, although text messages may be useful as a means of providing a brief update on the status of a case, they will not be appropriate where comprehensive details need to be conveyed.
The future of client communication
Many websites now offer virtual agents - chatbots with Natural Language Processing (NLP) capabilities - to help direct customer service enquiries. These chatbots can go beyond mere redirection, even offering some basic advice in response to specific questions. Amazon Alexa and Siri have demonstrated the extent to which natural language can be harnessed by AI, as well as the willingness of people to engage in conversation with a machine. So the future of client communication with law firms may lie, at least to some extent, in the rollout of NLP and AI technologies.