Why It Makes Sense to Narrow Your Practice Areas

It may seem counterintuitive to narrow the focus of your law practice, but often establishing a niche practice brings you more, not less, business. 

Consider another professional practice – medicine. Would you rather see a doctor that may have seen only a few patients with your particular medical problem, or a doctor that deals with your particular illness or injury and successfully treats patients like you on a regular basis? The same principle can be applied to a law practice.

Having a niche practice or focusing your practice on a few practice areas in which you excel and can develop in-depth knowledge and skills will instill confidence in your clients. By establishing yourself in a niche, you’re more likely to get referrals from other lawyers. You may be able to collaborate with other attorneys in related fields on the specialized issues encompassed by your niche. 

Establishing yourself as an authority in a particular field brings more focus to your marketing efforts and helps create a more pointed marketing message with a specific target audience. Just because you focus your marketing or your practice on a particular niche doesn’t mean you are required to turn away clients in other areas if you’re equipped to handle those matters as well. Believe it or not, your focus may make you more attractive, even for clients that need services that technically fall outside of your niche, if you’ve established a reputation as a skilled lawyer in a related area. But I would advise lawyers to carefully consider whether sometimes it’s worth turning away some business to focus their energies or establish themselves as lawyers with ‘higher value’ practices.

Narrowing your niche too much can be a problem, particularly in the scenarios she discusses. Sometimes your narrow niche is your true love, the area of law that gives ‘meaning’ to your practice, and you also provide services to clients in other practice areas that can bring more money, or more consistent cash flow. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I think it’s far too common for lawyers to create a practice that’s too broad or encompasses so many practice areas that potential clients are left with the impression (particuarly for solos or small firms) that the firm can’t possibly be competent at all of them (or perhaps any of them). 

There may still be a place for generalists in the legal field, particularly in certain areas of the country. And large firms that provide services in many practice areas, with lawyers that practice in only a limited number of them, can certainly market those individual practice areas and develop sufficient skills to represent their clients well. But as a general rule, particularly in today’s marketplace with the increased competition and availability of information to consumers, spreading yourself too thin and trying to be a lawyer that can handle anything for anyone is counterproductive – for both lawyer and client.

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Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

P.S. Found a mistake or a bug? If there’s anything that bothers you about this site, I want to know! Send me an email at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!

 

How to Take Control of Your Practice by Creating Vision and Mission Statements

See this article as it appeared in the February 2006 Law Trends on line publication of the ABA GP/Solo Section, “How to Take Control of Your Practice by Creating Vision and Mission Statements”
http://www.abanet.org/genpractice/newsletter/lawtrends/0602
/business/visionstatements.html

Many solos and lawyers responsible for managing their firms report feeling out of control or overwhelmed.  Even successful lawyers will admit that their practices grew almost by chance, rather than by design.  They don’t have a handle on how their clients are coming to them, or what their clients are really looking for.  They aren’t sure how to grow their practice, to take it in a new direction, to get better work or better clients.  They never sat down and thought about exactly what they wanted their practice to be, but they tell me their practice isn’t what they want it to be.

There is hope.  Stop to take stock of where you are and where you want your practice to be in the future.  After all, if you don’t know where you’re going, how are you going to get there?

The first step toward creating the practice that you want is by establishing the vision and mission, writing them down, and sharing them with everyone that works in your firm so that they are inspired by them.

The vision and mission statements  are the touchstone for everything you undertake, from strategic planning, marketing, management and practice building to recruitment, hiring and performance evaluations.  These two statements are important, concrete guides for the future of your practice.  Once the vision and mission are written and digested, the rest of your business activities, including the management and marketing of your practice, have a direction. 

With a mission statement, you have a guiding principle against which to measure each of its actions.  You can begin to craft your practice in a more purposeful way and create business plans which will bring the firm to its destination – the attainment of the firm’s vision.

What is a ‘vision?’
The vision is the statement of what you are building.  It describes the idea of your firm in a way that captures your passion for your business and inspires you.  It is the picture of what the firm wants to be in three to five years.  Although some advocate creating a vision with a much longer time-frame, with the pace of business today and the changing legal landscape, creating a shorter term vision can keep you inspired and won’t become obsolete before it is reached.

The vision should be specific and include items such as culture, the ‘feel’ and atmosphere of the firm, the intangibles that customers can expect, as well as the ‘harder’ or more tangible aspects of the business, such as number of clients, gross profits, number of employees, number of offices, number and types of practice areas, etc.

Crafting Your Vision Statement
The vision describes your dream for your practice.  Set no limits when initially exploring the vision statement – let yourself describe your vision in an expanded manner.  It may help you see possibilities you might not otherwise have recognized.  Spend some time thinking about it before editing down to what you think is realistic or achievable.  But remember when editing not to edit out your passion – that which makes you enthusiastic about reaching your vision. 

Questions to Consider When Creating a Vision Statement
Who is your ideal client?
What are your financial goals for your practice?
What will you or your firm be known for?
What services will you provide your clients?
What will your role be in the practice?
Where do you practice?
When will you need more space, different systems, more staff, more attorneys? 
Why are you practicing law?
Why will your clients hire you rather than your competition?
What will the culture of your practice be?
What are your beliefs and values and how will they affect your practice?

What is a mission statement?
The mission statement describes the firm’s current purpose, identifies the firm’s market, values and priorities.  It illustrates how the firm intends to achieve its vision and how it goes about the practice of law every day.  It answers the question why clients will hire you to represent them.

Spending the time creating the mission statement and obtaining input from others in the firm enhances ‘buy in’ from the firm, regardless of its size, and establishes a starting point for the firm’s forward progress.

Your mission statement will also be useful for your clients – it will convey to clients and potential clients the essence of your firm and the manner in which you do business.  The mission statement can be a powerful tool, both for strengthening the infrastructure of your business, and for attracting and keeping the clients you want. 

Crafting Your Mission Statement
The three keys to a mission statement are purpose, business and values. 

Purpose
What is the firm’s core purpose?  Your response to this question should be a concrete one, and it is truly the foundation of your whole practice, and especially your management and marketing plans.  Spend some time thinking about why your firm was created, what need it seeks to fill.  Why are you practicing law?  What do you hope to accomplish?  What are you committed to providing to your clients?

The purpose section of the mission statement should also provide some information about the firm’s basic management philosophy and ‘in-house’ style – does the firm want to be a small, boutique law firm, a large business, a family atmosphere, corporate atmosphere, etc. 

Business
Your mission statement should also address the business of the firm – the firm’s clients, practice areas and services provided.  Keep in mind that if your firm has multiple practice areas, it might make sense to keep your overall firm mission statement more general and craft separate mission statements for the different practice areas.

Do you have or do you want to develop a niche practice?  Who are the beneficiaries of your work? Who is your ideal client?  What are their demographics?  What are their problems or needs? What services do you provide to address those needs?

Values
The values expressed in your mission statement emphasize what you are aiming for, what the firm’s core priorities are – does the firm emphasize responsiveness over completeness?  Do you emphasize alternative dispute resolution over litigation?  Do you emphasize compassion versus aggression?  What is most important to the firm, and how do you want to be known?

Set Yourself Apart
To be effective, the mission statement should be unique to you and your practice and reflect your personality. 

The problem with many law firm mission statements currently in existence is the same problem lawyers frequently have with their marketing – rather than focusing on who the target audience is, and what their problems are, the focus is only on the firm or lawyer – their education, their skills, etc.  The mission statement, just like a good marketing message, must focus on the client – what their problems are, and how your firm solves their problems or meets their needs better or in a different way than your competition does. It’s not about you, it’s about them, and about being of service to them.

If you substitute the name any other law firm or lawyer that practices in your area of law in your mission statement, is it still true?  If it is, your mission statement is too vague.

For example, “To provide quality legal services and practical, effective solutions to individuals and businesses at a fair cost with a focus on client satisfaction” is an ineffective and uninspiring mission statement.  It doesn’t convey a sense of the firm’s uniqueness or culture.  It doesn’t communicate the kind of services the firm provides, to whom they are provided, or how.  This mission statement sets forth the bare the minimum level of service which all clients expect their lawyers to provide – effective solutions at a fair price. 

Tips for Writing Vision and Mission Statements

  • Be specific, but make sure that the mission statement doesn’t become a strategic plan.  The mission statement should be an enduring statement of the firm’s identity, and should not contain goals and objectives.  The specific goals, objectives and actions to be taken by the firm should be incorporated into a plan, but that should be separate from the mission statement. 
  • Use ‘we’ to emphasize the firm as a whole, and focus on the firm’s culture and strategies.
  • Make sure all of your employees can relate to the mission statement – that it inspires all employees to be their best and to work toward a common goal. 
  • Make it easy to understand – don’t use ‘lawyer-speak.’  Remember, many of your employees are not lawyers, and most (if not all) of your clients are non-lawyers!
  • A good mission statement fosters commitment, motivation, and inspiration.
  • Seek input from all levels of the organization – from the file clerks, receptionists, secretaries, attorneys, paralegals, etc.  This creates ‘buy in’ for everyone at the firm, makes them feel a part of the team, and provides different perspectives. 
  • After input is received, the mission statement can be written by an individual or a small committee composed of individuals sensitive to the entire firm’s viewpoints, and it should reflect areas of consensus.  But do not allow a large group to be involved in the actual writing of the vision and mission statements, as this approach often devolves into nitpicking about comma placement, etc. and accomplishes nothing. 
  • Set a deadline for completing the mission statement.
  • Circulate a draft of the mission statement before it is finalized for review and comment. 
  • When reviewing the draft, ask yourself: Does this accurately reflect my understanding of the firm and its business?  Can the partnership live up to this?  Can the individual attorneys live up to it?  Can our staff live up to it?  Can we operate by this on a daily basis?  Are we willing to measure everything the firm does by this?

A Final Word About Implementation
Writing vision and mission statements alone will not bring about change or reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed.  To be effective, implementation is essential.  Everything in the practice must be based upon and measured against the mission statement.  If a client, a project, a charity event, a case, or a method of practicing is not in alignment with the firm’s mission statement, the firm risks diluting the firm’s identity and power.

Just as any good trial lawyer knows not to make promises in her opening statement that she can’t keep, so every law firm should beware of crafting a mission statement which the firm is not prepared to act upon and enforce.  Don’t create expectations that you can’t or won’t live up to.  If you don’t believe your mission statement, why should your client?  If the partnership doesn’t believe it, why should your associates and staff?

In order to create effective and inspiring vision and mission statements, it is crucial to ensure that the firm leaders are in agreement. Do they all agree with the vision?  Do the partners agree on the direction of the firm, the types of clients the firm does and will represent, and the manner in which the clients are serviced?  Can all partners articulate and agree upon what sets your firm apart from the competition?

If you want to create a direction for the future of your practice, and a way of doing business that inspires you, your entire firm, and your clients, creating vision and mission statements are a good place to start.  Once you have a clear direction, making real progress toward your goals is much easier, and reduces that feeling of being overwhelmed.

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Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

P.S. Found a mistake or a bug? If there’s anything that bothers you about this site, I want to know! Send me an email at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!

 

What Message is Your Firm Sending About What it Values by What it Measures?

I read an interesting article yesterday morning from CRMGuru.com by David Rance, a UK consultant who helps organizations become more customer-centric. The article was entitled The Madness of Metrics: Be Careful What You Measure, and it got me thinking, once again, about law firms.

Take a moment and consider what it is that your firm measures. Where is the emphasis? Is it on the firm’s stated values, or are your measurements actually in conflict with those values?

Rance’s article opens with a story about a customer service call center whose manager was concerned about response to correspondence received by the call center. The manager instituted a program whereby all unanswered letters were counted at the end of every month. He was surprised to learn that there were no unanswered letters several months in a row. This was particularly surprising since he had observed stacks of letters on desks in the department. He learned accidentally that the reason the monthly count was low was that the employees gathered all the letters at the end of the month and sent them to another department. They were returned to customer service in about a week, but they were out of the department at the time the count was performed.

This may seem like an extreme example, but many law firms fall into the same trap – they make benchmarks for employees to meet, and employees find ways to meet the ‘letter’ of the benchmark, rather than the ‘spirit.’ Billable hour requirements are one obvious example: associates are told that they must meet a particular number of billable hours per year to qualify for a raise or bonus, or perhaps even to stay employed. The lawyer is now focused only on meeting the billable hour requirement. The firm can pontificate endlessly about client service, mentoring, or other activities that they’d like to encourage, but those statements fall on deaf ears. Why? Because the firm is measuring billable hours, not client service, mentoring, etc.

Rance’s article points out the importance of aligning metrics with your firm’ s declared vision. This is an essential point, and one often missed by law firms. If the metrics and measurements are not aligned with the vision and values of the firm, the firm’s stated values cease to exist, and the things that are measured become the defacto ‘values.’ Of course, aligning metrics and vision requires your firm to have a declared vision in the first place. Establishing a powerful vision and lasting values for your firm is an essential component in being successful.

I read a quote recently (I can’t remember the author, unfortunately) that said, in essence, that the only things a leader cannot delegate are establishing a vision and objectives – unless that person wants to give up being the leader. The essence of leadership is establishing the vision and the goal, and inspiring others to follow. As Michelle Golden and I discussed in our posts last week, a firm’s culture is only as good as its communication. And that communication must include clarity about the firm’s real vision and objectives. 

But the most effective communication is often indirect; it isn’t what the firm leaders actually say in a meeting – it’s all of the other communications which have a much larger impact, both on employees and clients. It’s what the firm does on a daily basis. And most importantly, it’s what the firm does when there’s a difficult choice to be made.

The true test of leadership is how well the leader sticks to the established values when sticking to those values means a sacrifice in another area. If the firm values client service, sometimes that means sacrificing some profit to be true to the value – whether by turning away clients the firm can’t handle unless they reduce the level of service, or by going the extra mile for a client in another way.

Ultimately, the rewards are greater when the firm does stick to its values. As Rance says, satisfied customers lead to long term loyalty and value. So make sure that your firm’s metrics and measurements are reflecting the firm’s true values.

Immediately after pressing ‘save’ on my previous post, I came across two interesting posts by Ron Baker on the VeraSage site. His first post, entitled, “Human Capital, Not Cattle”, discusses the ways that professional firms forget that they need ‘knowledge workers’ more than those ‘knowledge workers’ need them, that firms should act as ‘lightning rods’ for talent, and that the true fate of any firm rests on qualities like passion, desire, innovation and creativity – qualities that are not generally part of a firm’s ‘metrics.’

The follow up post, “But Wait, Professionals Aren’t Knowledge Workers” explores the opinion that most firms are really filled with ‘factory workers’ rather than knowledge workers – that it is really the management (leadership) of the firm that determines whether a firm is filled with knowledge workers. He says,

When you consider the metrics used by most firms to measure their team members, they all come from the Industrial Revolution’s command-and-control hierarchies (realization, utilization, billable hours, etc). Yet as I discussed in my posts on The Firm of the Past and The Firm of the Future, the metrics we use to measure a knowledge worker’s effectiveness are woefully inadequate.

Both posts are must-reads. Together, they reveal the current state of most firms: focus on inputs, costs, and effort, filled with factory workers, and the factors that will make a difference for firms of the future: emphasis on value, individuals, innovation, creativity, and autonomy for knowledge workers who are passionate and self-motivated.

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Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

P.S. Found a mistake or a bug? If there’s anything that bothers you about this site, I want to know! Send me an email at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!

 

Considering Client Service as Part of Employment Reviews

Dan Hull’s What About Clients blog focuses on increasing the level of service lawyers provide to their clients.  Dan’s firm has a performance evaluation system which has recently been re-vamped to include specific focus on client service. (Their system also includes ‘top down’ evaluations, but also ‘bottom up’ evaluations – something missing from many law firms, but that’s a topic for another article). 

Dan says,

“We talk about real service every single day, almost as if it were a substantive area of law practice. It’s a running conversation. But if are serious about building and keeping a “client service culture” at Hull McGuire, we need to underscore them in every performance review.”

Well said, Dan. As I’ve said in the past, law firms can’t expect their employees – whether attorneys or other staff – to take firm initiatives seriously unless the firm makes a real commitment to those initiatives. That means compensation and advancement need to be based on the values that the firm espouses. Otherwise, they aren’t really values. 

If the firm says it values client service (as every firm must, if it expects to survive), each individual must be evaluated based upon whether they are living up to the firm’s client service standards. When performance evaluations and compensation systems focus on nothing but billable hours, it’s no wonder that associates and staff don’t strive for better client service. Rewarding those who provide excellent client service – in all its forms – is bound to get employees more engaged in delivering that service.

More firms should follow Hull McGuire’s lead and incorporate the firm’s stated values into performance evaluations and compensation systems. 

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Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

P.S. Found a mistake or a bug? If there’s anything that bothers you about this site, I want to know! Send me an email at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!

 

Calculating Rates for Legal Services

The June 16, 2006 edition of the ABA Journal e-report included an article discussing how the Second Circuit set fees for one solo attorney. The case involved an ERISA claim where the attorney was successful in arguing that his client’s pension should not be reduced because of a break in service. The attorney based his proposed billing rate on the billing rate of six attorneys in larger firms that handled similar cases. The fee proposal submitted to the court was accompanied by affidavits from those six attorneys.

The District Court reduced the lawyer’s claimed hours for reasons including work on unsuccessful claims the Court deemed not sufficiently related to the main claim and record keeping which did not adequately separate ‘administrative’ from ‘legal’ tasks. In addition to the reduction in hours, the Court set the billing rate at $100 below the attorney’s proposed rate, citing the fact that the attorney was a solo, and therefore had low overhead costs.

The matter was appealed and remanded to the District Court where a second judge determined the solo’s fee based upon a ‘blended rate’ which the Court determined by estimating what a larger firm might bill for specific tasks if they were performed by attorneys with differing levels of experience.

The matter was appealed again, and the Second Circuit noted that, rather than creating a fictitious ‘blended rate,’ the attorney’s fee should have been calculated based upon the different tasks actually performed by the attorney. The Second Circuit also rejected the notion that a lawyer’s rate can be lowered merely because he or she practices as a solo.

The matter was once again remanded to the District Court for determination of the lawyer’s fees.

Although the ruling is a victory of sorts for solos because the Court recognized that an attorney’s status as a solo doesn’t automatically mean that lawyer’s fees should be less than those charged by a larger firm, it may also create more problems for attorneys whose fees are reviewed by the courts. Will the courts scrutinize every single task performed by the lawyer in order to determine the appropriate fee? It seems that reducing the number of hours for tasks not considered ‘legal’ tasks would be more appropriate than reducing the attorney’s rate. Notably, according to the article, the original District Court judge did both.

Since I’ve been discussing value-based fees recently, I’m curious how the courts might rule on value based fees. If a lawyer bases his or her fee on value to the client (where the method for calculating fees is not determined by statute), and quotes the client a fixed fee up front, will the courts uphold the fee, or insist on scrutinizing the particular tasks performed, regardless of the result or the client’s satisfaction/agreement to the method of calculating fees? Only time will tell.

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Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

P.S. Found a mistake or a bug? If there’s anything that bothers you about this site, I want to know! Send me an email at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!

 

Being There for Clients – How Available Are You?

Does providing excellent client service mean you have to be tied to clients 24/7?

Dan Hull, who writes the respected What About Clients blog thinks lawyers should be there for clients — 24/7. I agree with Dan when he says,

In the next decade, and even for high-end clients, more and more “cookie cutter” and fungible services will be outsourced and done by very smart and far more cost-effective workers and professionals in Bangalore, Taipei or Mexico City. Just wait. What’s left over will be specialty items and things clients need professionals and specialists to do at their highest levels of thinking and problem-solving.

This may very well be the ‘wave of the future’ for legal practices. That’s why lawyers need to differentiate themselves from the competition, whether that competition is down the street or across the world. It’s why lawyers have to focus more on what their clients really want, and on finding innovative ways to meet not just the needs and wants that clients openly express, but needs and wants that are below the surface.

Where I disagree with Dan is in the premise that providing your clients with the best service always means being available 24/7. For certain types of law practices, being available for your clients at all hours of the day and night, seven days a week might be necessary – a criminal practice comes to mind. If a client is arrested, they need legal counsel fast. And in that situation, if you’re not available, you might lose that client. And if your practice is international in nature and you’re dealing with clients in different time zones, chances are that you’re going to be available on a different schedule than someone with a purely local practice. 

Attorneys are not royalty, as Dan says. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that today’s marketplace or the marketplace ten years from now requires that attorneys be available to their clients around the clock. I’m sure that many will disagree with me, but being available around the clock may not be the best strategy for you or your clients, even if clients say that’s what they want.

It may seem like a radical point of view, but consider the possibility that being always available can diminish the value of your services. Although clients may say they want the cheapest lawyer, they really want the best representation they can get – they want the best value. Being the most available can undervalue your services in the same way that being the ‘cheapest’ can. As Dan Kennedy suggests in some of his teachings about marketing and running a business, nobody lines up to seek the advice of the old man at the bottom of the mountain. It’s the wise man at the top of the mountain that people line up to see – and that people make sacrifices to see.

I’m not suggesting that attorneys should make themselves unavailable merely for the sake of making themselves unavailable. But remember that your best clients are the ones that seek out your advice and that trust and respect you and your judgment. If you’ve built the right relationships with your clients and if you’ve positioned yourself in a way that takes advantage of your own unique talents and skills and you serve clients in a way that no other lawyer does, existing clients, and even potential clients, won’t be too eager to throw that away to take a chance on someone else merely because they claim to be available 24/7.

I’ve said before that sometimes being too available hurts both the lawyer and the client. Again, a lot depends on your individual practice, your practice area, and the client. But being too available can make the client too dependent on the attorney, and can unnecessarily inflate legal fees. It can be the cause of poor performance, distracting the attorney from the task at hand and from the client who’s looking for assistance. I’ve worked with and have personal relationships with attorneys that are available 24/7. Many times, their clients are unnecessarily demanding because they know the attorney is ‘available’ 24/7. Often, they’ve got high stress and high blood pressure, and they never really re-charge. That isn’t good for them, their families, or their clients. They may be ‘successful’ in that they make a lot of money, but is that the only definition of success?

By contrast, I know attorneys that restrict their availability, albeit for good reason. They explain to clients that when they’re involved in a trial (for example), they don’t take other client calls. The client can call the office and get assistance from someone else. If it’s a real emergency, the lawyer’s office is instructed when and how to contact the attorney, but the client isn’t given direct access. The clients respect this, knowing that when their case is being tried, they’ll get the attorney’s full attention.

All of that being said, depending upon your practice area, it’s a good idea to set up systems to ensure that there is a mechanism in place for clients to get to you if they have a true emergency. Dan says that, “no client worth keeping will abuse the privilege.” This may very well be true, but sometimes it’s tough to discern which clients are worth keeping from the outset. Giving all clients unfettered access to you at all times is, in my humble opinion, a mistake. Instead, if you’ve got a client with whom you’ve established a trusting relationship that goes both ways, feel free to give them access that you deem appropriate, and make sure they understand the uses of that access. 

If you’re working in a firm and can establish a system whereby a client gets immediate help from someone, and that you can be reached if necessary, that makes more sense than providing everyone with your personal contact information. Often, if a client trusts you, they’ll trust your staff and they’ll also trust your discretion about how a particular matter or problem should be handled, and by whom. Much of this is a matter of setting expectations with clients at the outset and establishing a good relationship.

Dan Hull contends that in order to be competitive, we have to ‘be there’ for our clients 24/7. I’m not sure that’s true, and particularly not in all practices. A lot of discussion about availability comes from a scarcity mentality – it’s based on the assumption that there aren’t enough clients to go around and that lawyers are all fighting over the same small pool of clients. But if you’ve positioned yourself in such a way that you’re providing service that others aren’t providing, being always ‘on call’ may not be necessary. 

I also disagree with Dan’s contention that not being available 24/7 is arrogant, spoiled and stupid – in fact, I think it can be good business, and that it can benefit both the lawyer and the client. 

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Already a subscriber? Want to learn how I can help you? Learn more about the products and services I offer by clicking here.

Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

P.S. Found a mistake or a bug? If there’s anything that bothers you about this site, I want to know! Send me an email at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!

 

Is Poor Communication Undermining the Culture at Your Firm?

Michelle Golden’s Golden Practices blog contains a great post entitled, “If Internal Communication is Poor, Can You Still Have A “Great Culture?” She warns that firms that take their ‘great culture’ for granted are playing with fire. She lists seven ways in which firms undermine their ‘great culture’ by failing to communicate personally with people about important things:

  1. Notifying people by memo or e-mail about their colleague, even manager, having been “let go”
  1. Relying on the informal gossip chain to replace formal presentations of “state of the firm” or goals, visions, and other important news or changes
  1. “Leakage” of preliminary information (often by owners to select team members) about pending policies, pending raises or bonuses, or other critical economic information, such that a mention or two to friends means pretty soon the whole firm “knows” — often it isn’t even final so the info may be wrong(!)
  1. Rolling out new programs or policies by memo or e-mail with no formal presentation to personally introduce it, frame it with appropriate background information, answer questions, and create enthusiasm
  1. Not telling people (hopefully publicly!) that they have done a great job
  1. Not telling people privately AND constructively how they could do something better
  1. Telling people anything personal, corrective, or negative by e-mail (and cc’ing others is a very, very bad idea)

I have a few more failures of communication that undermine what would otherwise be a great place to work:

  1. Not communicating with the firm about new hires (and not being prepared for their arrival)
  1. Not telling people that a program, initiative or policy has been abandoned (possibly due to lack of enthusiasm or appropriate communication in the first place — see #4)
  1. Promoting someone or changing their job description and failing to clearly communicate the change to others on the team – particularly where the change involves a change in authority or chain of command
  1. Not communicating the ‘big picture’ to the whole team – failing to let people know how their role contributes to the whole, not informing the team of the results of an engagement or not reporting feedback from clients

and to make it an even dozen:

  1. Not listening (this could be a list in itself!) – actively discouraging input or acting in a way that sends a message that the other person isn’t valued (not being ‘present’ for the communication – answering emails, doing paperwork or taking calls during the conversation or meeting, having side conversations, or focusing on the intended response rather than being open to another point of view)

Take a good look at the way your firm communicates, and make sure you aren’t ruining what would otherwise be a ‘great culture’ by making these mistakes.

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Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

P.S. Found a mistake or a bug? If there’s anything that bothers you about this site, I want to know! Send me an email at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!

 

How to Attract and Keep Superstars in Your Firm

Worried about great lawyers or staff being lured away by the competition? Read on to find out the best ways to keep your best employees loyal to your firm.

I was reading one of my daily newsletters, Early to Rise, and came across an article by Michael Masterson which addressed exceeding your potential by surrounding yourself with superior people. Masterson relayed the story of a young woman who was succeeding brilliantly at her company, but wanted to leave. When he asked her why, she said that although her boss was a wonderful person and an excellent businessman, she had ideas to expand the business and make it more interesting, but her boss rejected all of her ideas because he had a particular way of doing business. Frustrated and sure that she could make a difference elsewhere, she decided to leave. I can understand that, having experienced it myself. And so can a lot of people who are dynamic, committed, and innovative.

As Masterson says in his article, the ‘superstars’ don’t often leave because of money. Sure, money is often a factor, and law firms, like businesses, need to ensure that their top performers are paid well. But, for most high performers, interesting work, personal and professional development, and a chance to contribute to the firm in a meaningful way often mean far more than the paycheck alone. 

Masterson’s advice on keeping superstars:

  • Invest in your top performers.
  • Continually weed out the weak performers and replace them with stronger ones.
  • Treat your people well by giving them what they need – which sometimes means being tough, but always means being fair.
  • Give your best people lots of good work to do.

Finally, Masterson suggests asking yourself these questions, and re-evaluating your priorities if you answer ‘no’ to any of them:

  • Have I hired anyone in the past few years who is as good as or better than I am?
  • Am I willing to have someone who is smarter than I am work for me?
  • Would I give a superstar employee the chance to demonstrate his superiority?

Sometimes it’s a leap of faith to allow a superstar to shine, particularly if that superstar might outshine some of those that are already at the top. And law firms often fear that allowing a superstar more responsibility, more ways to shine, more access to clients, more free rein will give them the tools they need to leave and perhaps to take some of the firm’s clients with them. But the greater risk is in preventing these top performers from doing challenging and complex work, and from putting their ideas into action. That virtually assures that they will leave. Not only are you likely to lose a superstar, but by consistently treating your superstars that way, you’re likely to attract less of them in the future

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Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

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    <p><strong>P.S.  Found a mistake or a bug?</strong> If there's anything that bothers you about this site,  I want to know! Send me an email at <a href=

Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!

 

Why Lawyers Are Bad at Client Service

I received an email from a reader in response to something I’d written about  excellent client service that said, in part,

Customer Service, whether in a diner, the grandest salon purveying the finest food and beverage in this or any land, or in the conference room filled with the greatest collection of legal minds … is a lot MORE than even what Meyer calls Hospitality, and whether one argues that it can be taught, it CAN be felt.

It’s more than just being on the client’s side. It’s empathy, it’s caring, but it’s also genuinely liking people. The best food servers like serving food to people. The best retail clerks like shopping with their customers. The best salespeople like selling. And the best lawyers like lawyering for their clients.  They think it’s important. It’s what they DO. It’s what they’re MEANT to do. They mean it when they do it, and they love all of it. If they thought they could get away with it and not be called weird, they’d hum while they did research. . .they might even sing while they wrote (just to themselves, of course, I’m just sayin’).

You said something interesting in your blog: “They should always be made to feel that everyone in the firm, regardless of position and familiarity with that particular client, is there to serve the client – as indeed they are. For a truly spectacular client experience, everyone within the firm must be willing to ‘go the extra mile’ for a client, and to do the unexpected.”

I’d be a little more strident: It should be clear that the first, and frankly only job is to serve the client. Period. Until you get to that point, you don’t understand client service, and if you never get to that point, you will NEVER understand it. If I were ignored, or made to wait, I’d take my business elsewhere, especially at the rates law firms charge. And when it comes to legal services, I can guarantee you, there IS another law firm down the street. There may only be one Chef Fancy at Le Chateau Extreme, but, until a lawyer proves herself to be indispensable, she’s pretty much fungible in the eyes of most clients (sad, but true). And even if lawyers are not, law firms ARE.

It’s a LOT more than just being “hospitable” even if you take the “Southern hospitality” meaning into account. I would agree that not everyone can do it, and I’ll say what some won’t: If you can’t bring it out in your people, get rid of them, and find people who have it. They’re out there, and clients deserve it. I know I do.

I agree with a lot of what this reader had to say. Here are some of my thoughts about why some of this may be occurring:

The unfortunate state of things is that many, many lawyers think of themselves as technicians – what they feel they’re MEANT to do has more to do with understanding the law or analyzing a problem than with serving a client. Some of that is the result of the way lawyers are trained.

Lawyers are trained to research precedent and analyze issues in the context of previous decisions. Clients are rarely discussed in law school. There is little, if any, discussion about all of the myriad aspects of serving clients that don’t involve analyzing issues or making arguments. It isn’t surprising that the client service aspect of the profession is often overlooked or ignored, or just not valued by the time lawyers begin practicing. 

Lawyers that practice in large firms after law school have little to no client contact for years, and often see only the small issue they’re working on – they’re rarely informed about the ‘big picture’ or the overall strategy involved in the engagement, let alone the client’s business strategy or needs outside of that particular matter. To a large extent, lawyers are trained to be backward looking. New ideas and innovative thinking are often scoffed at or viewed as too risky or too costly to undertake.

Lawyers often see the legal issue, not the person behind it. They don’t always see that ‘liking people’ is an important aspect of their jobs – and historically, it may not have been as important for lawyers, because clients put up with a lot to get the lawyer’s technical expertise and training.

Many lawyers just don’t see how client service (or lack of it) affects their bottom line – either the nature of their practice doesn’t lend itself to repeat clients or they don’t realize that clients aren’t coming back (and aren’t referring others) because they didn’t receive excellent client service. Many clients won’t leave during the course of an engagement because it’s just too expensive to change lawyers in the middle, and there’s an element of the ‘devil you know vs. the devil you don’t know.’ In those cases, the lawyer doesn’t realize she has ‘lost’ a client because the engagement gets completed despite the client’s dissatisfaction.

Some clients that leave because of poor client service may give a different reason for leaving – it may sound like they’re complaining about fees, but their real complaint may be that they didn’t feel they got value for their money because the service wasn’t up to par.

Since there’s often no easy way for a lawyer to know that a former client had another legal matter and didn’t return to the firm, or that a current or former client didn’t recommend the firm to a friend with a legal problem, this is, to some degree, an ‘invisible’ problem. This can be overcome at least in part if lawyers put better client service/client experience initiatives into place, have frequent conversations with clients about their experience with the firm, have more in depth conversations with clients about expectations, learn to listen more carefully to clients, and regularly survey or review these issues with clients at all stages of the engagement.

A lot of lawyers make the mistake of putting themselves, rather than their clients, in the center of the equation, and that attitude trickles down to the staff. In lots of law firms, the thinking is that the staff exists to help the lawyers, not to help the clients. Although of course, the ‘ support staff’ in a law firm is there to make the firm work more effectively and to support the legal work the firm is doing, many lawyers seem to forget that the legal work is being performed for clients. Without clients, there would be no firm.

I did not ever mean to imply that client service was limited to Meyer’s definition of hospitality as set forth in the Inc. magazine piece, and I agree that as competition increases, lawyers will need to be more and more focused on clients. It’s a lesson they’re still learning, and part of what I’m trying to impart to lawyers. Clients DO deserve more. And lawyers that don’t get it are going to eventually learn the hard way.

I’m not trying to make excuses for lawyers, but to those ‘on the outside’ who may not have experienced legal education or the (sometimes unfortunate) realities of legal practice may not realize that all of that education and experience shapes the thoughts, beliefs and actions of lawyers.

The best way to increase the level of client service that is being provided is to continue the discussion, and to make that discussion practical and productive – to show lawyers how client service (or lack of it) affects their practice on a profound level, and what they can do to change that and increase the quality of representation they provide to their clients.

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Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

P.S. Found a mistake or a bug? If there’s anything that bothers you about this site, I want to know! Send me an email at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!

 

What To Do With Client Feedback

In a previous article I wrote about the importance of seeking feedback from clients, and the ways in which to go about obtaining it. But don’t forget what may be the most important part of the equation – what to do with the feedback once it is received. Obtaining feedback from clients and never looking at it or taking action on it can be worse than failing to ask for the feedback in the first place.

The response to the feedback you receive doesn’t necessarily have to be a direct response to the client, although in many cases, a direct response is appropriate. A client who takes the time to provide constructive suggestions for improvement of a firm’s performance is going to expect action from the firm – either a change in the way the firm provides its services, or some explanation or further discussion from the firm about how to deal with the client’s matters in the future. But whatever feedback the firm receives should be acted upon in some way. And the feedback should always be shared in some manner with those that worked on that client’s matter, including support staff and associates. Although it may not be appropriate in all cases to share the exact response received, the nature of the response should be communicated if the firm expects to improve on weak performances and to encourage strong performances.

Many lawyers make the mistake of taking action only on negative client feedback, but results of a client survey or study indicating that the firm’s performance is ‘ok,’ may warrant more of a response from the firm, whether internally or directly to the client, than purely negative feedback. It is the merely ‘ok’ response that may signal danger for the firm for the simple reason that those results are easy to overlook. It is the indifferent client that the firm has the best chance of turning into a satisfied and enthusiastic future client if the client’s concerns are acknowledged, particularly if there are areas in which the firm can improve its performance in the future for that client. Although negative responses do warrant attention, there are some clients who just won’t be satisfied, and these may be the clients that the firm does not want to encourage to return. By contrast, the indifferent client can often be won over.

Rather than ignoring the ‘ok’ response, the firm should seek to identify the areas in which the client was less than thrilled with the firm’s performance. Often, the areas of disappointment or indifference relate not to the firm’s technical expertise, but to the level of service provided to the client – the ‘experience’ that client had with the firm. 

If the firm has received the client’s feedback in written format, sometimes a follow up meeting between the client and senior members of the firm can go a long way toward repairing or strengthening the client relationship. Remembering that the law is all about relationships, it is the service, rather than the techinical expertise, that often ‘makes or breaks’ the attorney-client relationship. 

Most client complaints are experience or service-oriented, rather than results or expertise-oriented – the lawyer failed to return telephone calls, the lawyer didn’t listen, the lawyer was condescending to the client, the lawyer failed to keep the client informed of progress on the matter, the lawyer failed to provide the client with a reasonable overview of the matter in terms of time, procedures, and billing expectations, the lawyer failed to live up to promises about deadlines or timeframe, the lawyer failed to alert the client to major changes or complications with the engagement, the staff at the attorneys’ office failed to make the client feel welcome or understood, etc. The good news is that these issues are often easily dealt with, once the firm is aware of them. But failing to follow up with a client that provides an ‘ok’ report robs the firm of the ability to learn of these issues, which many clients will not raise on their own unless and until the problem is beyond the point of repair.

Finally, don’t ignore positive feedback from a client. If you or your firm receives a glowing review from a client, ALWAYS, at the very least, say thank you. You can thank the client in a letter, via email or with a follow up telephone call. Let the client know you appreciate their taking the time to complete your survey and thank them for their positive comments. You may also want to ask the client’s permission to use them as a reference, or to use their comments as a testimonial for your firm. Some clients may be uncomfortable with this idea, so this conversation needs to be extremely respectful of the client’s wishes. (See my earlier post about client testimonials here). However, there are many clients who are more than happy to be a ‘raving fan’ for an attorney that has provided outstanding service. 

 

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Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

P.S. Found a mistake or a bug? If there’s anything that bothers you about this site, I want to know! Send me an email at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!

 

Tips For Obtaining Client Feedback

Seeking feedback from clients is important. But what is the most effective way to obtain this information? The answer may depend on the kind of practice you have and the nature of the particular client – whether it’s an ongoing relationship or a ‘one time’ client.

So many lawyers boast in their marketing materials, on their websites, in firm brochures, etc., that they provide ‘excellent client service.’ Ultimately, in order to back up those claims, law firms need to connect with their clients in meaningful ways – by staying in touch, by showing interest, by learning about the client’s business, by anticipating clients’ needs, by providing solutions that make sense from the client’s point of view, and by checking back with clients to see whether they feel that we’re doing enough. Sometimes the best way to serve our clients is to admit what we don’t know and set about learning it – whether directly from them, or from other sources.

Client feedback can be sought through completion of client surveys or feedback forms sent to a client upon completion of each matter. The advantage to this type of system is that many clients will be more forthcoming on paper than they would be when speaking directly to a lawyer from the firm, particularly if the lawyer is one with whom the client works on a regular basis. The disadvantages of using forms is that many clients will not bother to complete the forms, particularly where the concluded matter is a ‘one time only’ engagement.

One possible solution to this dilemma is to provide the client with an opportunity to provide feedback to the firm earlier in the process, thus allowing the firm an opportunity to learn whether the client is happy with their experience of the firm and to correct any misunderstandings while the matter is ongoing.

Written feedback forms should not be too long or too cumbersome to complete, lest they discourage the client from responding. A few ‘narrative’ questions may be helpful, however, for written format feedback, ratings-type questions (for example 1-5) may be easier and faster for a client to complete. 

David Maister, in his book Managing the Professional Services Firm, contends that client surveys with 25 or so ratings-type questions are simple for clients to complete and have historically been shown to communicate the firm’s desire to improve while allowing the client to provide both positive and negative feedback. Maister contends that response rates to questionnaires of this kind are high where the client is aware that the questionnaire is coming, and where the questionnaire is returned to the firm, rather than to the specific partner with whom the client deals on a regular basis.

Another way to obtain client feedback is to schedule an interview with the client at the completion of the matter. If possible, this interview should be conducted by a senior lawyer in the firm, although not necessarily the lawyer that regularly handles this client’s matters – once again encouraging candor. 

The following are some general areas to cover when requesting comments from clients on their experience with your firm:

  • The client’s overall experience with the firm
  • Experience with lawyers
  • Experience with non-lawyer staff
  • Responsiveness
  • Communications with the client
  • Technical ability

Some narrative questions can be included as well. Ask what suggestions the client has to make the client’s experience more enjoyable or improve the firm’s service, what would encourage the client to hire your firm in the future (or recommend the firm to a friend or colleague), what areas the client thinks the firm could improve and in what areas the client thinks the firm excels. 

Many clients appreciate the opportunity to praise particular individuals within the firm (including the non-lawyer staff) with whom the client has dealt, particularly on long-term engagements. Some firms may want to include an opportunity for the client to identify the individuals with whom the client interacted by name and to provide specific comments about the service they received from those individuals.

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Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

P.S. Found a mistake or a bug? If there’s anything that bothers you about this site, I want to know! Send me an email at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!

 

How Many Clients Should You Have?

A friend recently asked me, “How many cases should I take in a year?” Unfortunately, there’s no magic number to answer that question, perhaps that’s because it isn’t the right question to ask – it’s looking at the problem from the wrong end.

A better way of getting to the information that I think my friend really wants to know is by starting from the outcome that you want to achieve. This will be different for every practice. What matters really isn’t the number of clients, per se, but whether you’re accomplishing what you want and need to with your practice. “Too many” clients may just mean that it’s time to expand your practice and bring on some help, or start taking on higher value, but lower volume work. “Too few” clients may mean that you aren’t charging appropriately for your services or you aren’t effectively marketing yourself.

Instead of looking at the problem from the angle of “how many clients should I take on this year,” which, translated, really means, “how many clients do I need to take to get where I want to be financially and to satisfy my other needs related to the practice, i.e. professional fulfillment, etc.,” try looking at it from the opposite perspective and define what those needs are, and then you can work backwards to determine the best way to get there. 

Looking at your practice from this angle is similar to looking at the vision you have for your practice (you can read more about that here.) Once you have the vision, you can determine the steps you need to take to get there. Once you know what you’re looking for from your practice in the next year, you can determine what kinds of cases you need to take, how many to take, and how much you need to charge to reach your goals.

Some things you might want to consider (and this is by no means an exhaustive list) are:

  • What kind of practice do you have?
  • How many current cases are you handling?
  • How much time, on average, does it take for you to handle each case?
  • Are the kinds of cases you’re handling now the kinds of cases you want to handle, or are you looking for something different?
  • Are your cases ‘high value/low volume’ cases, or ‘high volume/low value’ cases?
  • Can you delegate some of the ‘lower value’ or administrative work you do to another person, whether it’s another lawyer or an assistant?
  • Do you practice in multiple areas of the law, or just one?
  • What are your expenses, including retirement, medical and dental expenses, among others?
  • How do you charge your clients – flat fee, hourly, contingency?
  • What fees do you currently charge?
  • How much do you want or expect to make this year?
  • Do you plan to take some cases on a ‘pro bono’ or ‘low fee’ basis?
  • How many hours of your day can you reasonably expect to bill?
  • What is the going rate for legal services in your practice and geographical area?

The bottom line for me is to figure out what you want your year to look like, and then determine how many, and what kinds of cases you want or need to take.

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Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

P.S. Found a mistake or a bug? If there’s anything that bothers you about this site, I want to know! Send me an email at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!

 

Exceeding Clients’ Expectations

By under-promising and over-delivering, law firms can increase their bottom line and improve the reputation of lawyers in general, and that makes exceeding clients’ expectations just good business. 

Of course, there is an opposing viewpoint. Exceeding clients’ expectations is considered by some to be a “stupid strategy.” However, often, those that think exceeding expectations is the wrong path to take often base their opinion on the premise that exceeding clients’ expectations offers more value to a customer than the customer wants, and cuts down on profitability. 

But under-promising and over-delivering doesn’t mean providing additional value to the client in such a way that it hurts the firm’s profits. On the contrary, it creates increased profits by increasing client loyalty. 

Often, exceeding clients’ expectations does not require additional expenditures of money or time, and can be accomplished simply and effectively. Seemingly small changes can make a big impact. Some good examples include communicating with clients on a timely basis, ensuring that each contact the client has with the firm is pleasant and courteous, and making clients feel as if the firm cares about the client and her business.

Some define good client service as determining the client’s wants, and then delivering exactly that and nothing more. In my opinion, this is not only short-sighted, but is a disservice to clients. Clients hire lawyers for their expertise, advice and experience. Sometimes what the client ‘thinks’ they want is, upon further reflection or exploration, not in the client’s best interests. Often, the lawyer is able to suggest different alternatives that would better meet the client’s needs, or more effectively accomplish the client’s goals. 

Creativity and innovation in the approach to a client’s problems may be the best value a firm delivers. A mindset that places a premium on the client’s stated wants and disregards the firm’s ability to assess the situation and suggest alternatives, is a huge loss for clients and de-values the importance of hiring an attorney. It’s this kind of thinking that leads people to the conclusion that legal services are a mere commodity.

In short, exceeding clients’ expectations is an excellent strategy. It is the essence of good service.

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Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

P.S. Found a mistake or a bug? If there’s anything that bothers you about this site, I want to know! Send me an email at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!

 

Can Excellent Client Service Be Taught?

A brief article in the July 2006 Inc. magazine caught my eye. The piece was about customer service in restaurants, but the lesson applies to law firms, too. A reader asked whether great customer service can be taught. The answer, by Danny Meyer, CEO of the Union Square Hospitality Group, a company which includes the Gramercy Tavern among its holdings, makes a distinction between customer service and hospitality, and claims that the latter cannot be taught.

Meyer says that in the restaurant business, customer service is, “getting the right food to the right person at the right time.” In the legal world, that translates to performing the work competently and on time for the client. In short, it’s what I call technical skill.

Hospitality, on the other hand, is defined by Meyer as, “the degree to which your customers feel that your staff is on their side.” To Meyer, this includes such intangibles as remembering repeat customers, listening, making eye contact, and handling mistakes well.

When I talk about providing excellent client service, I’m talking about what Meyer calls hospitality. That’s the real essence of client experience. It’s what will make the difference between a good law firm and a great law firm. In the legal world, there’s nothing the client wants more than to feel that his lawyer, and indeed the entire firm, is on his side.

The ‘hospitality mentality’ needs to be present throughout your firm in order to provide your clients with a good client experience. Your receptionist should take care to remember long-standing and repeat clients. Professional staff must be mindful of listening to the client’s needs and concerns, rather than merely barging in with the lawyer’s solution to what the lawyer perceives the client’s problem to be. Clients must be treated courteously and professionally at all times. They should always be made to feel that everyone in the firm, regardless of position and familiarity with that particular client, is there to serve the client – as indeed they are. For a truly spectacular client experience, everyone within the firm must be willing to ‘go the extra mile’ for a client, and to do the unexpected.

Sound easy? It may be, but time and time again I’ve observed law firm personnel, whether staff or attorneys, ignore clients sitting in the waiting room, brush off a client’ s call without attempting to help because they aren’t familiar with the client’s problem or because the person whose ‘job’ it is isn’t currently available. Client service is the job of every individual employed by the law firm.

For employees who aren’t providing the proper level of hospitality, Meyer recommends telling the employee precisely where he’s going wrong and giving him a fixed amount of time to make specified improvements. For law firms, that means feedback of a less than traditional nature. And that feedback can’t wait until an annual performance review – your relationships with your clients are too important for that. Feedback needn’t be formal, but it must be provided at all levels on an ongoing basis. This feedback should be made in conjunction with client review sessions or client satisfaction programs.

Hospitality, or an outstanding client experience, is often a product of the firm’s culture and environment as a whole. As Meyer cautions, “hospitality starts with employees treating one another with respect and trust. If that’s missing with your staff, it will be missing with guests.” Wondering whether your clients are being treated the way you want them to be? Look first at how your partners, associates and staff treat one another – if your internal culture, atmosphere and communication are poor, chances are the client experience with your firm may not be as positive as you’d like it to be.

Meyer contends that the key to hospitality is hiring the right people, because hospitality cannot be taught. Although I don’t necessarily agree completely, I do agree that a firm can’t provide its clients with a truly great client experience without the right people. Meyer says he looks for five key traits when interviewing prospective candidates to work in his business: friendliness, curiosity, a good work ethic, empathy and self awareness. What do you think are the key traits a legal employer seeking to increase the quality of client experience with her firm should look for?

This article originally appeared on my blog, and prompted a number of comments. To see the post and the comments, go to: http://legalease.blogs.com/legal_ease_blog/2006/07/can_excellent_c.html

For more about how your firm can incorporate client service into its cultures, see these articles and blog posts: Considering Client Service as Part of Employment Reviews, Exceeding Clients’ Expectations, How Client Dissatisfaction Can Hurt You, Do You Know What Your Clients Really Want? and Rules for Client Service.

If you’d like to read more about client feedback programs, you can check out these articles and blog posts: Do You Know if Your Clients are Satisfied?, Tips For Obtaining Client Feedback, What to do With Client Feedback and More on Client Surveys and Client Satisfaction.

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Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

P.S. Found a mistake or a bug? If there’s anything that bothers you about this site, I want to know! Send me an email at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!

 

Do You Know If Your Clients Are Satisfied?

In ongoing surveys of lawyers that I’ve conducted, most agree that client service is an important part of marketing, and yet many don’t have methods in place to measure client satisfaction. Among those that do have such procedures in place, even fewer follow up with clients after each individual engagement to determine their satisfaction. 

Many lawyers tell me they don’t need formal procedures to gauge client satisfaction – they just ‘know’ whether or not their clients are satisfied. But do they really know? Don’t make the mistake of assuming that clients who don’t complain are satisfied clients. Once a client starts making objections, it may be too late to salvage the relationship. Many clients don’t complain until they’re already fed up and ready to walk out the door – or at the very least, not recommend you to others.

Some lawyers are afraid to ask clients for feedback because they fear it will invite clients to think of negative things to say. But the point of seeking information from clients is to find out how to improve your service. Sometimes even ‘over the top’ clients have legitimate complaints or concerns that can be addressed in a more global way. And often even the most unreasonable client complaints have a nugget of truth at heart that is worth exploring.

Another objection I’ve heard to seeking client feedback is that once a lawyer asks a client for their feedback, the expectation is that their complaints or concerns will automatically be addressed or resolved. Many lawyers fear that clients will suggest changes that the lawyer cannot make for ethical, financial or other reasons, and that failing to make those changes paints the lawyer in a worse light than failing to ask for feedback in the first place. In rare cases, that may be true, but turning that objection on its head may lead to a valuable learning experience. 

If the client making the objection is a repeat client, or one from whom you are likely to get business in the future, the issue might be worth exploring in a more in-depth conversation or face to face interview to determine whether there is some middle ground that can be reached. Keeping an open mind during these conversations may lead to solutions the lawyer never considered – solutions that could be beneficial to both sides.

Alternatively, speaking with the client about the issue and addressing their concerns while explaining the reasons why changes can’t be made in the way they anticipate can strengthen your relationship and may provide the client with a better understanding of the way in which you work, while at the same time providing the attorney with valuable insights into the client’s priorities and goals.

Even for ‘one time’ clients, addressing these kinds of concerns can be valuable. Perhaps the issue is one that needs to be explained in more detail at the time you are retained to avoid misunderstandings with future clients. And chances are that taking the time to talk with a client, even one for whom you’ve already concluded your business, will generate goodwill that may lead to referrals in the future.

Seeking out feedback from clients can help you determine what kinds of clients to take on in the future; perhaps hearing the same complaints from the same kinds of clients is a signal that this type of work, or clients that fall into this particular category, are no longer the type of clients with whom you enjoy working, or with whom you can profitably run your practice.

Following up with clients after an engagement is concluded can also lead to valuable positive feedback about individual lawyers in the firm or about specific areas in which the firm excels. Sometimes the firm may not even be aware that they have particular strengths (or may not be aware that clients take note of them). In these cases, client feedback can provide valuable insight into the firm’s competitive advantages that can be used to differentiate the firm from the competition and strengthen its marketing.

Clients that see that their attorneys show a genuine interest in the client’s experience are often that much more willing to help the lawyer by referring the firm to friends and colleagues. And great comments on a client feedback form or in a follow up interview with a client after the successful conclusion of a case can sometimes lead to references or testimonials.

 

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If you liked these articles, subscribe to my e-newsletter, and you’ll receive new articles in your in-box. The articles in the newsletter are not available to the public – the only way to see those articles is to receive the newsletter.

Already a subscriber? Want to learn how I can help you? Learn more about the products and services I offer by clicking here.

Allison

Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

P.S. Found a mistake or a bug? If there’s anything that bothers you about this site, I want to know! Send me an email at Allison@LegalEaseConsulting.com. I want this site to be not just a resource, but a refuge for lawyers. I want you to be comfortable here.  So if there’s something that bothers you, please tell me!