A Law Firm Guide to Navigating COVID-19 Part 3: Serving Clients
Compiled with the assistance of North Carolina Bar Association Center for Practice Management
It is likely that you already communicate with clients in a variety of ways, many of which are not in person. Once you have your operations decisions made you will let your clients know. In some cases, you may have clients who are resistant to technology. Read the paper from ABA TECHSHOW 2020 by Annie Arbenz and Shantelle L. Argyle on “Loving the Luddites: Serving Tech-Averse Clients” for some ideas on how to work with clients who may not be prepared to work with you online. For essentials on operating a law practice remotely, watch the webinar on How to Build a Virtual Practice presented by Brooke Moore.
Notifying your clients
Whether you keep your client list in your contacts, in a practice management or time/billing application, a conflicts spreadsheet or a CRM application you should pull a list of all past, current, and potential client’s email addresses. You can create three lists for distribution (past, current, potential) and send an email with information pertinent to their relationship with you. Many businesses are proactively letting customers, past and present, how they will continue to do business and how to contact them. Depending on the size of your client list you will want to use some sort of mass email application because breaking the list into pieces to BCC them will take a long time. If you are not currently using an email newsletter service like ConstantContact or MailChimp, TinyLetter has a free account for up to 5000 contacts. It is simple and easy to use. You may also pull a list of other contacts, including your insurance provider, vendors, co-counsel, referral sources, and others to communicate the firm’s plans.
In your letter provide information about how the firm will do business including any changes in phone, fax or email. Explain how, and if, meetings will be held at the office or another location. Let them know that further and more specific information will be sent regarding individual active cases.
For active matters, review your deadlines/ticklers, statutes of limitations, upcoming court appearances and other relevant information. Prioritize by the most pressing deadlines first and send emails to your clients or call about the status of their matter and any disruptions due to various circumstances such as court or other government facilities closures or other disruptions/limitations that you can anticipate. Reiterate any changes in contact information or mailing address.
If you do not have an email for a client, or the email bounces and the matter is active send a letter through USPS or another carrier or make a phone call.
In addition to updating any changes to contact information for the firm, consider adding the same notification of commitment you emailed to your clients on the website homepage, as well as on your social media pages (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, etc.).
You may begin to create content for your website, such as FAQ, checklists and other information for your clients based on legal needs that will arise from the pandemic. A good example of proactive communication can be found at Dan Schwartz’ Connecticut Employment Law Blog.
Communicating With Clients Remotely
Because you may be calling from a phone number that is different from the one currently in their trusted contacts, you may want to schedule calls with your clients via email first and let them know what number you will be calling from.
In many cases, you and your team will want to reduce exposure to your personal mobile numbers, so consider the telephony options you have put into place (see Part 2 under Telephony).
It is likely that you already email with clients. If some of your team will be included as cc, or they may be emailing the clients directly for the first time make sure your clients know who will be communicating with them on behalf of the firm and introduce the team. Make sure everyone in the firm updates their signature block if any information has changed.
In lieu of physical meetings, many businesses are choosing to hold meetings via video conference. While Office 365 Teams and Slack have audio and video capabilities they are mainly for intra-office communications. Your VoIP system for telephony may provide features for conference calls and video conferencing, so before you look for a new product see if you are already paying for one.
If you don’t currently have a way to invite clients to a video conference then Zoom is a very popular video conferencing system that is very easy to use and free for up to 100 participants with a 40 minute maximum, or unlimited 1:1 meetings. Craig Ball has created a quick guide to holding a Zoom conference. For more tips on successful online meetings see the CPM article (Not So) Secrets for More Productive Meetings and the CPM Learning Objectives video “Defensive Calendaring”. If you are sending an event invitation electronically make sure to include the information (link, dial-in option, etc.) necessary to participate in the invitation.
Another option is Legaler, an audio/video conference platform built for lawyers. Headquartered in Australia, Legal provides a platform that helps schedule a meeting, host a video conference, upload agendas and documents, and shared notes space. They are currently offering the platform for free for 12 months. After signing up for free users can enter the code “remote-19” under Settings > Subscriptions and then choose the Active Plan.
For immediacy, portability and for those clients who may find other communications challenging because of the need for privacy or limited bandwidth, giving your clients a text option should be considered. Again, if you are using one of the popular VoIP providers, you may have business text messaging available. For a fast and free option, you could get a Google Voice number for text messaging. While certainly not the best option, you can send emails to text and receive text to email. For other texting options and considerations see the CPM article “Consider Texting with Clients”. Some practice management and CRM applications are adding text capability. Check with your provider.
There are a lot of ways to share files and folders electronically with clients. A popular method is to set up a client portal, which has the added benefit of additional features for communication. Most all of the cloud-based practice management and document management systems have client portals available. Jim Calloway from the Oklahoma State Bar makes the case for portals versus emailing attachments, as well as many options for setting up a client portal using applications you may already use.
If your firm doesn’t currently a cloud-based practice management or document management system and client files will be accessed via a VPN on a server, you can still set up file sharing with clients using any number of online document storage systems including Citrix Sharefile, Dropbox, Box, OneDrive, Google Drive, or Adobe Acrobat DC. One consideration when sharing files from online repositories is that your client may have a hard time creating an account to the application, or does not wish to. Many of these document platforms have the option of creating an “open” link (one that does not require an account) but is protected by a password and can also be expired, made read-only and other options. Here is a comparison of popular programs.
If you have a meeting with a client that requires a physical presence follow all protocols advised by the CDC cleaning and disinfecting recommendations. Practice social distancing by trying to keep 6 feet of space between participants if possible. If you are sick or anyone else is sick reschedule the meeting. Provide hand sanitizer at the entrance and exits if possible. Wash hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, dry your hands thoroughly and avoid touching your face.
Sending Out the Bills
If your firm is mailing bills to clients consider emailing them instead. The invoices are likely generated electronically or generated with a time/billing/practice management or through Quickbooks or Xero.
If you do not take credit cards online this is a good time to look into it. If your firm uses LawPay then you already have the option of sending the client a link to pay online. Keep in mind that taking credit cards electronically requires PCI compliance so it is best to let a merchant set up for this type of security protocol handle it. Do not ask for a credit card via email or online form. A major benefit of LawPay is that you can maintain operating and trust accounts so that you can take payments for either account without co-mingling funds. LawPay has excellent resources, tips, and tutorials for taking credit cards while staying ethically compliant. LawPay integrates with almost every practice management application, or you can add a payment page on your website.
There are lots of ways to get signatures from clients virtually. Of course, in some cases, you will need to collect a “wet” signature with notaries on printed paper, though there are many times you do not need that. If you do not need a wet signature you can collect them via a variety of esignature tools, including through products you may already use like Citrix Sharefile, Adobe Acrobat DC, MyCase and others. There are plenty of third party options too like HelloSign and Docusign. Or, if you feel more comfortable seeing the client or parties sign, you can use the Acrobat app, SignMyPad or the Office App to have the user sign a document with a stylus a mobile device like an iPad or smartphone.
See this tutorial article on sending and receiving documents for signature through Adobe Acrobat DC.
See also Part 1: Awareness, Response, and Workplace Plans/Policies and Part 2: Law Firm Operations