Tag Archives: client service

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.


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!


Client Holiday Gift Idea: See The World Through Their Goggles

ar123790189942547Much earlier in my career as an “outhouse” lawyer (i.e., one who works at an outside law firm, servicing corporate clients), the prevalent view among my newbie colleagues was that being the member of an in-house corporate legal staff would be a dramatic “lifestyle” change. By this we meant that one chose the in-house route to trade the higher pay (if only slightly) and chance at partnership for reasonable working hours and no pressure to measure one’s life in billable hours or cultivate client relationships.

It only took about a year before I came to understand the absolute fallacy of this view. At least the reasonable working hours part. I’m sure there are a few of those cushy in-house jobs out there, but the in-house lawyers I’ve known and reported to work as hard, often harder, than I’ve ever worked. And while outside lawyers face pressures to bill hours and attract and keep clients, our in-house counterparts can face equal or greater, albeit different, pressures.

Depending on the industry and corporate culture, our in-house counterparts have responsibilities we don’t see but exist nonetheless. There’s pressure from management that often do not understand or appreciate the value lawyers bring to deals and cases. There’s also pressure to procure and supervise the best possible legal representation, while controlling continually rising legal costs. Finally, in-house legal staff members face the same pressure we all face to manage and balance a myriad of responsibilities within the time constraints of a (hopefully) normal workday.

So enlightened, I’ve come to see how the most valuable outside lawyers are often those who sympathize with these pressures and try to make life easier for the in-house clients to whom they report. Sure, there are “bet-the-company” and unique white-collar trial lawyers who are hired for their prized trial skills and fantastic record, or highly specialized tax or real estate investment trust experts who bring rare knowledge to the table. These will always be in demand. But, like it or not, most of the rest of us are replaceable commodities. I consider myself an excellent lawyer, but I practice in a city with thousands of excellent lawyers, many of whom have the same knowledge and skills I possess. So what sets me apart?

Well, I try to recognize the challenges my in-house counterparts face and take steps to make their lives easier. This is not always easy or even possible. Cases can spiral out of control. Lawsuits sometimes expose the frailties of a company or weaknesses of their policies–not to mention mistakes or other transgressions of management or individual employees. When this happens, my in-house counterpart becomes the dreaded messenger of bad news, unappreciated or worse.

One of the best ways I’ve found to make a client’s life easier is to take steps to improve our communications and information exchange. I do this by trying to shift my perspective, so that I attempt to view the situation and our communications less from my own point of view and more through my client’s eyes. This can be a transformative exercise, and it only takes small changes to make a big difference. Here are three examples of what I mean:

1. I try to improve the frequency of my reporting on the progress of a case, even when very little is going on. The importance of frequent client reporting of events becomes clear when I shift my perspective and consider the ominous void or “sound of silence” that occurs when months pass without any kind of update.  Remember most in-house lawyers report to someone up the food chain; they do not look so good if asked about the status of a case and they cannot provide anything beyond a stale update you provided several months back. Making my in-house counterpart look good to her superiors when they ask what’s going on with a particular case makes her life meaningfully easier.

2. When I do report on an event, I also try to anticipate questions my client will ask and tailor the report accordingly. I think: what questions would I have if I was on the receiving end of this update, and I try to answer those. I’ll readily admit that I rarely anticipate every question, but I try.

3. The narrative we provide on billing invoices is also really important. We may find it lamentable that the days of lawyers billing simply “for services rendered” are long gone, but the reality is that clients look hard, not only at the time and amount we bill for a task, but also how we describe what we did. I’ve always tried to imagine myself on the receiving end of the bill. Would the time and narrative make sense to me? Would it seem reasonable? One suggestion I got from a colleague a while back was that invoices should be written so they show the progression of the case, like a report. I’m not sure if this is realistic, but I do think it makes sense to think about billing descriptions from the perspective of my client and I try to do this as much as possible.

These may seem like minor changes, but that’s the point. If we change, even if only slightly, our perspective, and try to experience the situation and our communications through our client’s eyes, we might be able to make their lives easier. Is there a better holiday gift? Ok, chocolate maybe.


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