Tag Archives: Dan Hull

It’s Resolution Time At Counsel Table

new-years-resolutionAs my wife will attest, I’m distrustful of resolutions, whether they’re made at New Year’s or some other momentous occasion, like discharge from rehab. But I’m going to take this New Year’s Day to make a resolution relating to client service: In 2014, I’m going to try very, very hard to change the way my clients think about lawyers.

This is not at all original. In fact, this is one of J. Dan Hull’s notorious “World Famous Bad-Ass, Annoying and Infuriatingly Correct 12 Rules of Customer Service.” Here’s what Dan says about this rule:

“This rule, like Rule One, is not so intuitive. But it’s the most challenging. The “under-promise but over-deliver” and “exceed customer expectations” notion of keeping good clients is a great idea. But I just don’t think it works that well for lawyers. I think that clients, rightly or wrongly, and whether or not they are even aware of it, in fact have low expectations of lawyers in the first place. For two reasons:

A. Traditional Pervasive Distrust of Lawyers (General–Deserved & Undeserved)

There is a pervasive (let’s face it, ancient) cynicism and suspicion about lawyers which even our most loyal and valued clients carry around with them. Some of it is unavoidable and not our fault. It’s based on everything from literature, TV, movies and lawyer jokes to a genuine misunderstanding of what lawyers must do to perform well. It’s deeply rooted in world culture.

B. Real Experiences-Based Distrust of Lawyers (Specific–Deserved)

But most of the distrust is our fault because either (1) our substantive professional services are merely “adequate” and/or delivered without passion or real caring–clients can sense that–or (2) we view clients almost as adversaries (they joke about us; we joke about them), which gets communicated to clients in every step of our work for them. See The First Post.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Why ‘try to exceed expectations’ when the overall lawyer standard is perceived as low to mediocre? If your clients are all Fortune 500 stand-outs, and the GCs’ seems to love you and your firm, is that because your service delivery is so good–or because other lawyers they use are so ‘bad’ on service? Why have a low standard, or one that merely makes you look incrementally more responsive and on top of things than the boutique on the next floor up? Why not overhaul and re-create the whole game?

If you read the better writers on services, like Harry Beckwith in Selling The Invisible, you pick up on this simple idea: Rather than ‘under-promise/over-deliver’, which is essentially job specific, why not change the way people think of lawyers generally and what they can expect from them generally? Get good clients–those clients you like and want–to keep coming back to you by communicating in all aspects of your work that you care deeply about your lawyering for them, you want to serve their interests on an ongoing basis and that it’s a privilege to be their lawyer. Show them you fit no lawyer mold.

Oh, yeah. One catch–and the hardest part: it’s got to be true.”

So how do I plan to execute? After all, a resolution without a plan is just an empty promise to oneself. I’m going to work on three core areas that tend to fuel a lot of client disappointment in their lawyers.

1. Communication. I’m going to work hard to improve my communication habits and practices. This includes a resolution to respond to any email or phone call from a client the same day. I’m going to report more, and more often, what’s going on in our case. (Yes, it’s our case. We’re in it together.)

2. Transparency. I’m going to strive to better involve clients in strategy development. Of course there are all kinds of clients, and some would prefer not to be involved; others want to plan every move. But those who want to participate will have the opportunity.

3. Value. Clients often hate to involve lawyers because they assume we are out to financially “gouge” them. I’m going to turn this on its head. I resolve to bring more value-in-advance. I will think of at least one way to save my client money at every step in any litigation. I will work harder to keep clients aware of major changes in California employment law–for free!

There. Now pass the champagne.


Associates: The Path To Partnership Is Paved With Hull’s Rules of Client Service

Survey form with a tick placed in Outstanding checkboxLet me start by saying that I know that not everyone who graduates from law school aspires to be a partner in a big law firm. Or a small law firm. Or any law firm. I’m not suggesting it should be everyone’s or anyone’s goal. Many who make it a goal, and achieve it, come to believe it is overrated. I strongly feel from what I hear and read that partnership has become far less important to many than it was when I graduated (1993), and I doubt it was as important to lawyers of my generation compared with earlier generations. I recognize, then, that this post may not be equally interesting to everyone.

Now that I’ve cleared my throat and caused most readers to change the channel, what I want to say is that, if you do aspire to partnership there are far worse words to live by than J. Daniel Hull’s self-described “World Famous Bad-Ass, Annoying and Infuriatingly Correct 12 Rules of Customer Service.”

I can guess what you’re thinking. Hull’s damn Rules are meant to inform the ways attorneys provide service to their clients, not how associates should treat partners. If we adhere strictly to labels, that is true. But I want to argue that being a junior lawyer who works for, takes direction (and compensation) from and attempts to please senior lawyers is very similar to the experience of any lawyer who works for, takes direction (and compensation) from and attempts to please their customers, i.e., clients. Even if one never aspires to be a partner, then, being a good associate can still be terrific training for how to be a good customer service-oriented lawyer. And, Hull’s rules are a damn good start.

Let’s look at them.

1.Represent only clients you like.

I previously said in another post that, at first blush, this rule seems to suggest we all have the luxury to cherry pick clients. Clearly, most of us don’t have this luxury. Similarly, associates rarely have complete control over who assigns them work. On the other hand, just as lawyers can work over the long-term to shape their practices away from clients they don’t like, talented associates can try to shape their position within a firm. While it might never be possible to completely avoid working for a complete asshole, it should be possible to position yourself to work more often with senior lawyers you respect and like. If there’s more than one complete asshole, then you probably don’t want to be a partner at that firm.

2.The client is the main event.

If you get to work and interact directly with a client, that client is the main event. If not, then the partner who assigned you the work is the main event. If you wouldn’t think of filing or giving a client a document that contains typos or is otherwise sloppy (you wouldn’t, would you?), don’t think you’re going to gain traction with any partner who receives a crappy, typo-ridden document. “Gaining traction” is fancy law firm speak for “having a future.” If nothing else, have your assistant proof read everything before you give it to anybody.

3.Make sure everyone in your firm knows the client is the main event.

4.Deliver legal work that changes the way clients think about lawyers.

Here I suggest you to strive to deliver work that changes the way many partners think about many associates. I witnessed first hand during my career the erosion of how many partners regard associates. I trace it to the point in time when a handful of very lucrative Silicon Valley law firms decided to give the historically high paying New York law firms a run for their money in terms of associate compensation. This seemed to coincide roughly with the point at which late Gen X and early Gen Y law students started graduating. The buzzwords I heard a lot around that time (and I wasn’t yet a partner) was some variation of “undeserved sense of entitlement.”

The good news for associates is that many partners are now so underwhelmed with the commitment of more recent law school graduates that it’s actually not that hard to stand out. In my crude, empirically unsound and untested estimation, a Gen Y associate who puts in the same effort as earlier generations of associates could be a rock star at some law firms. On the other hand, I recognize that many Gen Y lawyers have a different sense of priorities than earlier generations, which I suspect is why partnership is not the brass ring it once was.

5.Over-communicate:  bombard, copy and confirm.

Like most clients, most partners like to be kept informed. If you find yourself working with someone who has limited tolerance for minutiae (and they’re out there) be sensitive to that and adjust accordingly.

6.When you work, you are marketing.

This is true whenever you do anything professionally, whether it’s for a client or a partner.

7.Know the client.

Know the partner. Take an interest in her practice and her clients. Think: how can I make her job/life/career easier. Take ownership of cases, deals or assignments and try to think how you can contribute more to the big picture. Don’t be afraid to make suggestions, but be careful not to do things unilaterally that might run contrary to the lead lawyer’s strategy. When in doubt, ask.

8.Think like the client–help control costs.

Think like the partner who is attempting to think like the client. Part of this is understanding and appreciating where you fit in. Ideally, you bring value to the client since it theoretically costs less for you to spend your time doing a task. This should also have a three-fold benefit to the partner and the law firm. On the one hand, it should free up the partner to spend less time doing more routine tasks and more time thinking strategically and doing more sophisticated tasks requiring experience, training and judgment for which clients are willing to pay higher fees. It should also free up the partner to spend more time marketing and bringing in new business which helps the firm grow. Finally, if leveraged properly, associates are profitable. While partners should not shrink from the responsibility of training, and cutting associate time from the bill is often appropriate, the more the above runs like a well-oiled machine the better for everyone involved.

9.Be there for clients–24/7.

I was going to say, “That’s why the firm bought you that iPhone 5,” but that’s not really what I mean. Perhaps it’s better to say that many clients expect their most trusted advisors to be there when they’re needed, without regard to day of the week or hour of the day. Associates that make it clear they will do what they can to recognize and meet this expectation will tend to be viewed as more valuable than associates who do not. I will admit that, as an associate, I jealously guarded my time away from work. As I started developing my own clients, however, I came to realize that, in doing this, I was just putting off the inevitable, since clients really do expect their trusted advisors to be available 24/7. It’s just part of the job which, as we know, is not for everybody.

10.Be accurate, thorough and timely–but not perfect.

It’s okay to make mistakes. But own mistakes when you make them. Resist the temptation to conceal mistakes or shift blame to others. Clients see right through this and so do partners.

11.Treat each co-worker like he or she is your best client.

Being graded on citizenship doesn’t stop when you leave grade school. Whether it’s made explicit or not, one thing partners consider when making advancement decisions is how well you fit in. Whether the office has 3 or 130 people, the ability to work well with others is important. If you’re rude to other lawyers, disrespectful or downright mean to staff, it can hinder your advancement. Many firms, including my own, pride themselves on having “very few sharp elbows.” Regardless how talented you may be, if you have “sharp elbows,” or an outsized sense of your own importance, or you’re just a jerk, it can make it hard for you to gain traction.

12.Have fun.

If you’re not having fun as an associate, it’s unlikely the practice of law is going to become fun if/when you become a partner, and your responsibilities extend far beyond doing great work and billing lots of hours, to include marketing and management responsibilities. If you’re not having any fun, maybe it’s time to think about doing something else.

So, if partnership is what you’re after, try applying Dan Hull’s “annoying and infuriatingly correct” Rules  to the service you provide.


Are Dan Hull’s Rules of Client Service Really So Infuriating?

Customer-Service2I am a big fan of Dan Hull‘s writing at his popular What About Paris/What About Clients blog. He has intellect, wit and a literary bent. One post which often seems to show up again and again in the legal blogosphere is his self-described “World Famous Bad-Ass, Annoying and Infuriatingly Correct 12 Rules of Customer Service.” If you’re not familiar with the 12 Rules, and you work in virtually any service industry, they’re worth thinking about.

I’ve wondered, however, why Dan refers to his own Rules as “annoying” and “infuriating.” Though I suspect he’s being hyperbolic, I think his description is unfair. I also think that any lawyer who finds the Rules annoying or infuriating should maybe look into another line of work. Here’s why I think the Rules are not so very annoying:

1.Represent only clients you like.

Ah, what a luxury, to be able to cherry pick clients and jettison those you don’t personally like. The Rule would be annoying, infuriating even, if you took the short, as opposed to the long view. If you’re a first year at a firm and servicing the firm’s clients, you definitely don’t have this luxury. However, as your career matures, you can hopefully begin to shape your practice and client development efforts so that you can increasingly avoid clients you don’t like. And you should. The remaining Rules are much easier to follow if you’re doing work for people or companies you like and respect.

2.The client is the main event.

If you’ve been a client, a patient or customer and been treated as a second class citizen–and who hasn’t–this rings true. The minute you lose sight of this Rule you’ve begun walking the road toward extinction, at least as a lawyer. Unless you provide a unique set of skills or knowledge and there is no one else in your region to compete with, you must follow this commandment, because at least one of your competitors will.

3.Make sure everyone in your firm knows the client is the main event.

Why would this be annoying? After all, these people are on your payroll. A good way to gauge whether others in your firm appreciate the importance of the client is by what they include in internal email communications. If, for example, they let comments slip into communications intended for distribution only within the law firm that suggest they do not completely respect the client, this should set off alarm bells and a chat should follow. First, we’ve all heard examples of emails in which the sender intended only to “reply” or “forward” the message, but instead hit “reply to all,” where “all” included someone–like a client–who didn’t appreciate a comment contained in the message. It’s a matter of time before this happens to everyone. Second, we often interact with our clients through our staff or associates. They need to treasure your clients (almost) as much as you do.

4.Deliver legal work that changes the way clients think about lawyers.

This Rule really doesn’t ask you to do anything beyond what many lawyers already do: aspire to practice law effectively, efficiently and, in the case of courtroom lawyers, win! The good news is that, with so many hacks running around out there, if you hold yourself to higher professional standards you’re already applying this Rule and clients will appreciate it. The bad news is that, with so many hacks out there, doing what hacks do, for so long, it’s going to take a lot to change the way clients think about lawyers. But do your part.

5.Over-communicate:  bombard, copy and confirm.

Put yourself in your client’s shoes. How much information would you want? It has been said that, as lawyers, we “sell paper.” That’s probably an oversimplification, but there is some truth to the notion that a client cannot appreciate what he or she never sees. A good part of what we charge for is the preparation of work product–motions, pleadings, correspondence, memoranda–why not let clients see what they’re paying for?

6.When you work, you are marketing.

Since we comply with Rule 5, supra, our clients can see and evaluate our work product. If the quality is high, it is both justification for the fees we charge and an advertisement why the client should hire us, and not a competitor, next time. If the quality is not high, it’s a perfect advertisement for our competitors. If you take pride in your work product, why would this be annoying?

7.Know the client.

In my practice, which focuses on defending employers in suits and claims arising out of the employment relationship, this Rule is elementary. It is why, as I’ve said, I take every opportunity to hold meetings at my clients’ offices or facilities. As Dan has said, “The client . . . actually wants you to know him, her or it. Take time out to learn the stock price, industry, day-to-day culture, players and overall goals of your client. Visit their offices and plants. Do it free of charge.”

8.Think like the client–help control costs.

I am constantly amazed at how costs mount when a case is litigated. I am not referring necessarily to the fees charged by the attorneys themselves, because this is a topic about which I have only the slightest understanding. Beyond a hazy idea of what others charge who do exactly what I do in my region, I don’t know what goes into this equation. I’m told there are now lawyers who bill $1,200 per hour. All I can say is, really?

Beyond attorney fees, however, there is a lot we can do to control costs when a case is in litigation, including deposition costs, investigation costs, photocopy costs. Sometimes, it takes some creativity, but our interests here should be aligned with our client and we should scrutinize these hard costs just as we would if we were paying invoices out of our own pockets.

9.Be there for clients–24/7.

This is what that iPhone is for (not just to play Angry Birds and take “selfies”). Oh, what it must have been like to practice law before fax machines, computers or mobile phones. But we don’t. We’re in a different era. We should not only survive in this new environment, but thrive.

10.Be accurate, thorough and timely–but not perfect.

Again, treat your client as you expect to be treated as a client, patient or customer. But feel free to occasionally cut yourself some slack, too.

11.Treat each co-worker like he or she is your best client.

This doesn’t sound at first like a rule geared toward client service, but here’s what Dan has said about Rule 11:

“Clients love to form partnerships with law, accounting, consulting firms and service providers of all manner with genuinely functional workplaces.  They love work communities where the professionals are demanding but love what they do and solve problems together as a team of happy, focused people who stretch–but respect–one another.  It’s fun for them to watch, and fun to watch them watch youClients want to be part of that.  Watching the “well-oiled” team is an image which sticks in the client mind.”

A well-oiled team is not only an image that sticks in the client’s mind, it is also a really good way to make the practice of law fun instead of pure drudgery.

12.Have fun.

Well, duh!


Knowing The Score Before You Open Your Mouth

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Legal blogging rock star and client service guru Dan Hull recently recommended an interesting book, Lawyering: A Realistic Approach to Legal Practice, by James C. Freund. Trusting Dan’s judgment, I promptly ordered up a dog-eared copy of the tome from AbeBooks.

Turning first to the chapter entitled “Handling Clients,” I found some interesting and sage advice right away. Freund asks what do you do when a client calls and wants to be counseled whether her company can legally do something. In the simplest terms, if a client asks you the sum of 2 + 2, do you automatically say 4? Or should we be concerned with what the client wants to hear? Would she prefer to hear 5?

Recognizing this sounds like ethical blasphemy, Freund rushes to explain himself:

“Now before you round up a posse to haul me before the bar association, let me hasten to add that the reason for desiring this knowledge is not . . . that it can or should affect the substance of your answer or reaction, where a legal issue or some other objective manifestation of your views is concerned. You’re not worth your salt as a lawyer if you provide phony answers to please a client. You have to call ‘em as you see ‘em, no matter what the consequences: it may be painful at the time, but in the long run your client will respect you for this and value your advice all the more.

On the other hand, knowing how the client wants to come out can be very important to you in deciding on the manner in which you reply–the style, as contrasted with the substance–and on shaping any practical advice you might offer.” (151-152)

Freund offers a couple of good illustrations, hypos if you will, to make his point. In the first, you are called by a client CEO who immediately announces you are on speaker phone and in the room with him is an “Employee.” CEO wants to know whether the company can issue the Employee shares of stock which the Employee will pay for with promissory notes.

While the law either allows or doesn’t allow the company to issue shares to an Employee to be paid for with promissory notes (I have no friggin’ clue), Freund points out that “the way that you handle the question can be influenced significantly by whether . . . (CEO) actually wants to issue . . . (Employee) some stock for notes, or whether . . . (he)’s just going through a charade–using you as a whipping boy–for the benefit of . . . (Employee).” (152)

What do you do? Freund suggests you try to ascertain what client CEO really wants to hear before you begin providing advice (assuming, unlike me, you could answer this query on the fly). Freund concedes it may not be easy to determine CEO’s angle:

“By the way, ascertaining . . . (CEO)’s real interest here may not be so easy–and tomorrow, you should let him know what an uncomfortable position he put you in, with a warning against future repetitions. For openers, don’t answer right away. Get . . . (CEO) talking; he’s likely to drop a clue (such as, ‘I told (Employee) this was a very difficult thing for a public company to do . . .’), which you can then pick up on.” (152)

Another way to get an idea what the client is looking for is to “test the water. Say: ‘And what did you tell him when he made that suggestion?’ The client’s reply should give you a fair indication of the direction in which he’s heading.” (153)

But why do you want to know? Again, it’s not about conjuring a phony answer, but about subtly strengthening your relationship with the client and bringing greater value. For example:

“If you determine that  . . . (CEO) isn’t really interested in issuing the stock, you can emphasize the legal difficulties which do exist under the applicable state law when you use notes to pay for par value shares–to say nothing of the unfriendly scrutiny such a transaction would receive from stockholders, other employees, and so on. All of this is good, sound counsel; you’re not deceiving anyone . . . On the other hand, if you sense that . . . (CEO) very much wants to issue the shares, then your litany of difficulties would be somewhat more muted, with a smooth transition into a constructive analysis of how the transaction can be accomplished–by securing the note, charging bona fide interest, and so on.” (152)

Again, as Freund says, the object of this preliminary fact-finding isn’t to cause you to change the substance of your advice to match the client’s desires, but instead to influence how you present the advice. The closer we get to the justifiably coveted status of “trusted advisor,” the more these subtleties matter. We’re not legal research “machines,” hired to churn out one-dimensional answers to legal questions without regard to how our advice impacts the client. Our role is not just to protect, but to advance the client’s interests, and the route to this goal is not always obvious or easy.


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