Find out why client/customer relationship management systems are essential for solo and small law firms — and how to start using one.
This article was written by Roberta Tepper, lawyer assistance programs director at the State Bar of Arizona, and Laura L. Keeler, practice management advisor at LCL Mass LOMAP, and originally appeared in The Marketing Issue (March/April 2022) of the ABA’s Law Practice Magazine.
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It has never been more important than in the “new normal” to be responsive to potential and current clients. Prospective and current clients are accustomed to the immediacy and convenience of Zoom. The changing landscape of law—the nascent movement to embrace nonlawyer ownership of law firms included—should remind us that client relationships are vital to success.
Sadly, but not surprisingly, many lawyers (particularly solo and small firm lawyers) don’t have a way to maintain and organize their client lists. Even fewer have a method for maintaining information not directly related to the substance of the legal matter. Welcome to the world of CRMs—client/customer relationship management systems. These tools can serve as the hub of lawyers’ practices and give them a way to analyze their practices, productivity, and to better connect and develop relationships with clients. CRMs have been around for quite some time but are still not ubiquitous in legal, though they should be. So, let’s dig in.
What Is a CRM?
In legal, CRM should trigger the term “client relationship management” rather than the generic “customer relationship management”. Client relationship management tools started in sales and marketing and facilitate the tracking of data on clients, future, present and past. When fully utilized the best of the lot also permit users to monitor conversion rates (return on investment), productivity, and benefit from automated forms, workflows and more.
The best CRMs may automate scheduling and appointment reminders; enable marketing campaigns without the need for a separate product to manage your e-newsletters; push data from potential client lists to active client lists when appropriate; and follow up with potential, current and former clients in what feels to them like a personalized manner, but for you may be as easy as utilizing preformatted communications with merge fields.
Why Do We Need a Centralized Database of Client Data?
If you’ve read the previous section and still don’t get it, imagine you are a client or prospective client. What would be better? Contact a lawyer; then wait days to schedule an appointment, provide basic information so the lawyer can do conflict checks and decide whether you and they might be a good fit? Or, contact a lawyer; get an automated intake form and schedule a consultation in a seamless process, accomplished without multiple phone calls, voicemail messages and frustration?
As the business owner, what would be better, spending staff time or your time on administrative tasks, or relying on automated forms and calendaring to get a matter going? Many CRMs integrate with practice management software, so information provided syncs and automatically populates in that system as well, eliminating duplicate data entry. With competition continuing from mega-platforms (think LegalZoom, for example), efficiency and responsiveness can be key to building and maintaining a loyal client base. We know you are starting to see the possibilities.
Just a note on conflict checking. Lawyers sometimes store client and case information in many locations—particularly those lawyers who, despite our best encouragement, are still resistant to using practice management software—and that makes effective conflict checking a challenge. Automated intake forms, and especially those that sync to your practice management platform, centralize this data, making conflict checking easier and more efficient.
Cost-Effective Lead Generation From Former Clients
For smaller firms or solos, marketing may seem unduly daunting in terms of both human and financial capital. Even small law firms may spend tens of thousands of dollars on ad words, search engine optimization consultants and other marketing, in the hopes of landing their next “big fish client.” Sadly, haphazard attempts sometimes yield very limited returns on investment.
Conventional wisdom is that up to three-quarters of new business comes from referrals from former clients. CRMs offer a better way to utilize lead generation with the data you already have. While this is fertile ground for business development, many lawyers don’t track their past clients, nor do they engage them in any meaningful way. Keeping in touch with, or staying on the mind of, past clients is a great way to keep your name at the top of their list if they need future legal services or are asked for the name of a lawyer.
CRMs Facilitate Prompt, Responsive Engagement
Engagement is vital at every stage of the relationship as individuals go from prospective clients to current clients to former (and perhaps repeat) clients.
Engagement is key; it draws in potential clients. Having a rapid response time to a potential client inquiry makes it far more likely that the individual will connect rather than move on to another lawyer or firm. This doesn’t require superhuman strength and no sleep; utilization of modern technology tools makes this possible. Firms can quickly and easily capture and vet potential client information through CRMs, or through processes such as intake forms embedded on the website or chatbots that are programmed to only accept intakes from qualified leads.
You may be familiar with tools like Zapier, which trigger workflow sequences. CRMs may also have predetermined triggers, such as automatically sending out a reply and scheduling link if the intake meets certain criteria. If the potential clients get this immediate response, it can make them clients versus prospects.
Communication and CRMs
For current clients, communication is now and forever king. Lack of communication is a primary complaint of clients to bar disciplinary bodies. Given the myriad of processes and tools currently available and increasingly utilized to help facilitate and streamline client communication—such as client portals, calendaring and scheduling tools, virtual receptionists, law practice management systems—you would think that this would no longer be a problem, but that’s not so.
Once current clients are in your practice management system, you likely have a process by which inquiries are promptly answered or regular updates are sent out. Even so, having a CRM with good, automated workflow can help. But note that most CRM/practice management software syncs are unidirectional—from the CRM to the practice management software— and not bidirectional, so good automation in your practice management software (or triggers through another tool) is also important.
Communication doesn’t have to end with the end of the representation; there is more to saying goodbye to a client than sending a final bill or settlement statement. This phase of the lawyer-client relationship can be challenging. Keep in mind that it is best practice (and a practical CYA) to send a disengagement letter at the end of each matter. A CRM is a good way to send that automated communication, with a good wish for the future and a reminder that you are available for future representations. The tool is also a way to keep those former clients aware of you and your practice— keeping them on your newsletter, blog, distribution list, or sending best wishes on birthdays, holidays, etc. You may also use these opportunities to ask for feedback or provide links to review sites where the client may leave a positive review if they wish.
Analytics and More
Some CRMs provide analytics about your practice, about your conversion rate (prospective clients to actual clients), your return on investment (how much you are spending to get the client versus how much you are netting from the representation), and more. Can a CRM replace a tool like Google Analytics? Well, it depends, but that is a question for the platform you are considering. What does the workflow feature look like? Some CRMs integrate with or feature a payment platform so you may charge for consultations.
How Do I Find a CRM?
You may have heard of Salesforce, HubSpot CRM, Microsoft Dynamics 365 or Zoho CRM, the nonlegal choices that have become more popular with legal entities as well, with Salesforce apparently the predominant choice of general CRMs.
When looking at legal-specific CRMs, established and rising products include Lawmatics, Clio Grow (formerly Lexicata), Zola Suite’s CRM and Lawcus (and this is not a comprehensive list). Scheduling a demo is quick and easy—it just takes your time, and it is time worth taking. Our suggestion is to schedule demos with more than one product. Each platform works a little differently and one may resonate better with you than another.
CRM Final Takeaway
We’ve talked about some of the functions CRMs may offer, but like all tech they are continually introducing new features. Some have client portals, some do not; some have automated forms and some integrate with other platforms for that purpose. The ease of use for you may differ by platform, as do many of the functions. Onboarding, the ease of doing so independently, whether there is a consultant needed, or whether the platform will do it for you as part of a subscription price or at an additional price all matter.
Overall, at a minimum, CRMs provide a mechanism by which to centralize the gathering of information about your practice depending on the product you choose. At best they may be a robust helpmate for managing your practice; staying engaged with clients’ future, current and past; obtaining helpful analytics; creating a seamless experience for your clients and more.
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©2022. Published in The Marketing Issue, Vol. 48, No. 2, March 2022, by the American BarAssociation. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.
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