Being Real with Clients (But Don’t Overshare!)
I posted recently on Twitter about a video call I had with a client who is overseas. To put the tweet in perspective, it was early in the morning, I was at home, and my husband was out of town for work. Perhaps also relevant: the “kid” in question is a nearly-11-year-old boy.
I felt a bit like the analyst on BBC whose adorable kids wandered in during his live segment.
I was thankful that I wasn’t on live television at the time, though my son’s underwear dance was pretty adorable and certainly viral-worthy.
After I confirmed that the house wasn’t burning down and that my son was putting on pants (as required by the school dress code), we turned back to talking about hard-core litigation strategy in a complex case.
My client—a woman and a mom—took it all in stride. She understood. We got right back to work.
Do Moments Like That Hurt Your Relationship with Clients?
I don’t know if I would have felt differently after the call if the client had been a guy or if he’d looked annoyed by the interruptions.
Maybe. Maybe not.
I think moments like these improve my relationship with clients. Yes, clients are paying us for our legal expertise, often a lot of money. And I’m sure they want excellent legal advice and responsiveness. That’s always our first goal as outside counsel.
I also think clients know they are hiring people—real people. I have a life outside of the office, and I’m not shy about talking with clients about it in the right context. I’m also happy to hear about my clients’ lives outside of the office.
There are a couple of reasons why being “real” with clients helps everyone.
First, knowing what’s going on in my client’s life at a very high level informs my representation in a concrete way. If my client is overwhelmed with real-life problems—sick family members, kids in crisis—that information can inform how best to communicate with my client.
If I know my client is traveling frequently back to her home state to deal with sick parents, then email may be the best tool so she can read them when convenient. If I know she has a kid in crisis that is taking up all of her time, then I may try to (gently) find out if there’s someone else at the organization who should be copied on my emails or a temporary contact person.
As a small-firm lawyer, I am upfront with clients about my time limitations, too. I will tell clients when I’m on vacation and give them the contact information for another lawyer in my firm so they will always know who to contact. But I’m not shy about telling them where I’m going if it affects them. I was recently in the San Juan Islands near Seattle. Internet was spotty, so I let my clients know. It led to some conversations about great vacations.
That leads me to the second way being “real” helps. It strengthens my relationship with them because rather than simply being attorney and client, we are trusted advisor and person or – gasp – just two regular people.
My kids are older, so I don’t have crying babies. I apparently do still have underwear dancing. My life isn’t perfect; I’m sure my clients’ lives aren’t perfect either. Building a relationship of trust means admitting our lives aren’t perfect. It may mean not freaking out because my kids set off the smoke detector during a conference call.
I don’t want anyone to read this post and think they should overshare. You don’t need to describe every argument you have with your spouse or tell me that you caught you kid smoking pot the night before. Or, hey, I found a weird mole on my back that’s freaking me out. Here’s a picture of it.
It’s still a professional relationship, and we are all well served to keep that mind.
All that said, I’m still a fan of letting clients know that I’m a real person. Sometimes that’s accidental—like my son’s impromptu dance. Sometimes, it’s deliberate—like when I ask about a client’s vacation plans.
Either way, it is a lawyer-client relationship first. But there’s no reason we can’t also act like we are real people too.