Years ago, I put together a presentation called “The Client-Centered Law Practice.” It focused on the irony that while law firms focused on serving clients and appropriately addressing their legal needs, clients sometimes had an impression that differed from that. To those (hopefully few) clients, it seemed that the law firm was busily engaged doing important work for other, very important people, while their matter was not a priority.
In fairness to lawyers, that was often the perception rather than reality. But in the legal world, your client’s perception often is your reality. Certainly, it is your reality where concerns such as client retention and clients referring others to the firm are involved. So client service improvement is important – even though lawyers understandably focus more on the legal work.
Designing a law practice that provides exceptional client service should be the goal of every lawyer. But this goal requires an understanding that accomplishing great results for the client’s legal problem differs from providing good client service.
Suppose the lawyer settles a claim for $10,000.00 more than anticipated. The lawyer is thrilled by the accomplishment. The client, however, may have their assessment of the lawyer’s performance clouded by the number of times they waited several days for the lawyer to return a telephone call or the in-person office appointment that started 15 minutes late and was then cut short because the lawyer had a court appearance.
What about receiving a better-than-predicted settlement? Once a client is critical of a lawyer’s performance, it is easy for the client to assume the lawyer was just “low-balling” that initial estimate. Weak customer service practices impact every aspect of a lawyer’s representation of a client, including weakening the client’s confidence and trust in the lawyer.
A MAJOR CHANGE IN LAW PRACTICE: THE TYPE OF CLIENTS SERVED
In 1967, businesses constituted 39% of U.S. legal services, and individuals made up 55%. By 1992, it was 51% businesses and 40% individuals. By 2012, the percentages were businesses 72.5%, individuals 23.9% and government 3.6%.
That means that 75% of legal work now involves a client representative who is a general counsel, a government lawyer or a business owner who is knowledgeable about their legal needs. It is understandable that law-firm-to-client communications developed into more like lawyer-to-lawyer communications. Larger law firms may handle more than 90% corporate work, while rural or small-town lawyers may have the opposite ratio, which requires different strategies.
If you haven’t read my thoughts about the practice of people law, I’d encourage you to do so. “The Practice of People Law” was published in the May 2022 Oklahoma Bar Journal. The ABA published my piece, “The Changing Dynamics of a People Law Practice,” in its July/August 2023 Law Practice Magazine “Big Ideas” issue. This is now behind the ABA member’s only paywall, but an earlier piece, The Practice of People Law, was published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal.
AN EMPATHETIC APPROACH
We are all consumers of goods and services. We can all empathize with poor consumer service, whether it is being stuck in a waiting room for too long after a scheduled appointment or providers not doing things as they said they would when they said they would.
Empathy is an important lawyer skill. Having others in control of very important and personal aspects of our lives is inevitably personal. Being forced to discuss your marital problems or an arrest with a stranger is hard. Clients may be embarrassed to discuss some things and will be more likely to be more forthcoming when they sense an empathic listener.
The design challenge for the law firm is delivering legal services effectively and affordably in a way that assures the client that their matter is being handled diligently and professionally while they are kept informed.
Invite everyone who works in the law firm to participate in brainstorming creative solutions that might improve law office operations. The lawyer’s view of what is most frustrating to clients during the representation process may differ from the law firm receptionist, who may have great input on what they hear.
Post-representation surveys, exit interviews and other techniques can solicit input from your past clients to improve future clients’ representation. One wants to encourage clients to pass along any criticism or frustration they experienced. One good way to solicit these responses is to ask questions like “What is the best thing that our law firm did during your representation?” and “What is an area where we can improve?”
Now let’s discuss some of the major areas that are often ripe for improvement.
MANAGING CLIENT EXPECTATIONS
It is important to appreciate that different types of clients have different expectations. Using your initial interview with the client to set expectations for the representation is important, especially regarding how long it may take to resolve the matter.
A key to representing someone unfamiliar with the legal process is to provide them with understandable and clear explanations of exactly what the situation is and the possibilities for the future. It may become more common to have clients watch a brief video before meeting with the lawyer to gain familiarity without billing them the lawyer’s hourly rate.
Many clients have no appreciation for how much time certain legal processes involving courts and government agencies can take. This is particularly true if their main exposure to the law is watching television dramas where the crime, investigation, arrest and trial all occur within the same episode.
Law firms appreciate the dockets in their jurisdiction, and it should be an important part of the client intake process to help establish the client’s expectations as to how rapidly their legal matter may take to be resolved.
No matter how much energy is devoted to planning law firm improvements, it is likely that many improvements will be related to attempting to improve the law firm’s client communication. Some challenges in the attorney-client relationship are caused by poor communication practices. Even if they are not caused by poor communication, the primary way to address the challenges is often through improved communication practices.
Clients are entitled to receive communication in a method that is appropriate and useful to them. But it can also be important to explain how many digital methods of communication are insecure and the consequences of confidential information being exposed to help the client appreciate why the law firm insists on using secure communications tools. Online client portals are a primary tool for accomplishing this. Once you explain the challenges, clients may feel better about logging in and posting queries to the portal as opposed to using email or phone.
The client intake process should cover lawyer client communications and create expectations on how quickly responses to inquiries will occur. Client input is required when important decisions affecting the matter are made. Retaining records of those important communications protects the law firm.
Automation wouldn’t have ranked high on lists of law firm needs a few years ago. But today, a law firm should incorporate current automation tools to facilitate client services without needing as much law firm staff time. Your client portal should be configured so that when new documents are uploaded, a notice of the new document availability is automatically sent out to the client. Templates should be created for important client communications that happen regularly just as templates should be created for legal documents frequently used.
The need for greater transparency is often associated with governmental entities.
It is unnecessary to sketch out every aspect of how representation might proceed during the initial interview. But once the client has retained the firm, it is important to provide a clear road map to understand the steps involved. Many legal matters will deviate from standard process as unanticipated developments occur. If a client is upset about “delays,” it may help to review the original road map initially provided where this type of delay was suggested as a possibility. It is also appropriate to note in a nonjudgmental way when the client’s actions or inactions have contributed to a delay. Transparency should apply in both directions.
RESPECT THE CLIENT’S TIME
No one likes waiting in the waiting room 20 or 30 minutes after their scheduled appointment. Once, clients were more tolerant of this. But today, the law firm must exert great effort to make sure that clients are seen at their scheduled appointment time or within a few minutes afterward.
People today have a more limited attention span for reading lengthy material. If it is necessary to provide the client with a lengthy document or memo explaining a legal position or theory, perhaps the firm should consider beginning these documents with a short executive summary.
Lawyers need to appreciate that meeting a client’s preference for receiving information today may require flexibility.
Recently, a colleague talked to a person who was upset about how her 80-year-old father was being treated by his law firm. He was frustrated with his lawyer due to all the emailing, printing, scanning and getting documents notarized he had to do for himself relating to a real estate transaction. When the person tried to discuss her concerns with the lawyer, he became defensive. The father believed he had signed up for full legal representation and was receiving a do-it-yourself experience. Here, expectations were not in line between attorney and client. When we go to a convenience store, we expect to pay a higher price for the convenience. Those with a legal problem have options ranging from online legal information websites to limited-scope services to full-service legal representation. Even though lawyers believe our services are the high-quality option, we must appreciate some clients are hiring us as the easiest, most convenient option.
WHAT IS YOUR EXCEPTIONAL CLIENT SERVICE MODEL?
Every law firm is different. A law firm that serves mainly consumers differs from a firm that serves mainly businesses and corporate clients. A firm in a particular geographical region will reflect the values and culture of that region. Some things that might work for other law firms may not work for yours. Therefore, every law firm must seek its own path forward.
Jack Newton, CEO and co-founder of Clio spoke via video at the 2020 OBA Annual Meeting about this subject. His book, The Client Centered Law Firm, identified five major values of a client-centered law firm approach:
- Developing deep client empathy
- Practicing attentiveness
- Providing ease of communications between lawyer and client
- Demanding effortless experiences
- Creating clients for life
What are the values you want your client-centered law firm to prioritize? Improving customer service should be a continuing project for the law firm. But don’t let the scope of this nonbillable task prevent your law firm from taking action. Your clients deserve your best, and less anxious clients make things better both for the clients and those working in your firm.
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal, October 2023