Illinois Bar Journal

The Magazine of Illinois Lawyers

November 2015Volume 103Number 11Page 26

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Practice Management

Creating a Client-Centered Practice

By
Ed Finkel

In a tough legal marketplace, putting clients first and providing excellent service is a must. It starts with putting yourself in the client's place.

Jim Calloway has had numerous lawyers tell him they didn't realize what clients experience until they hired an attorney themselves. One of those so testifying suggested to Calloway, director of the Oklahoma State Bar management assistance program, that every law student should have to become a client on some matter. "It would turn out a better crop of lawyers," he says.

artwork for articleMichael Belleau can relate. The training, learning, and development manager at Taft, Stettinius & Hollister in Chicago, and formerly of Winston & Strawn, Belleau once hired - and then fired - an attorney for a real estate transaction that was a bit more complicated than usual because it involved documents for a construction loan.

Why the parting of the ways? "He did not use e-mail, and you could not leave a voicemail," Belleau says. "His secretary had to write down a paper copy of your message. It was extraordinarily frustrating. Sometimes you only needed to ask a simple question or convey simple information. The reason it was set up this way was because it was convenient for him, or he was comfortable with the process. The experience of someone like myself wasn't taken into consideration."

When Belleau called to sever ties, the attorney did not ask any questions. "He didn't learn anything about why I was leaving," he says. "I didn't think his legal prowess was lacking.… I liked him, and he seemed to be capable."

But for a relatively routine matter like a real estate transaction, lawyers face lots of competition - and during a stressful time that involves packing boxes and hiring movers, Belleau did not need the added angst, so he moved on to someone who seemed like a better communicator. "The last thing you want to worry about is, 'Is this being taken care of? Is the closing date set?'" he says.

Jim CallowaySome of that's just common courtesy, Calloway says. "The client service model, it's almost like the Golden Rule," he says. "You want to treat people like you would want to be treated. We all understand that, but sometimes it's hard to live by that. If there's ever bad news for a client, something unexpected happens, it is the lawyer's duty to not only notify the client, but notify the client as soon as possible."

Lawyers who have not hired another attorney in the recent past should think about their experiences with other service professionals, such as doctors or dentists, to consider what they do and don't like, Calloway says. This is especially important for those in consumer-oriented practices, he says. "Many lawyers who serve consumer clientele have offered to have evening or weekend appointments, but it was something they didn't do unless they had to," he says. "Thursday evenings open can be a marketing strategy and a service strategy."

Given that people increasingly can make doctor or dentist appointments online, or even send text messages, "Why should it be in the legal profession that you should have to call and schedule an appointment and then wait three weeks to see if I can help you and what it's going to cost?" Calloway says. "It's basically [about] sitting in the client's seat."

Lawyers and law firms need to realize that in an increasingly commoditized world, their services are no exception, Belleau says. "The factor that goes into my decision is cost and the ease of the experience," he says. "You need a system that is user friendly. You have to have people there to answer the phones. And people want a plan: What is going to happen, when, how much is it going to cost?"

Such dynamics are routine in other businesses, but lawyers too often think they can coast on their legal expertise, Belleau says. "You don't get to dictate the rules; the customer does. If you embrace that, you're going to get the business," he says.

Smaller firms

Turning that corner is easier for small and medium-sized firms. "If you're at a Winston or a Taft, it's a large ship," he says. "If you're in a smaller or midsized firm, you have flexibility. You can change things immediately, at very low or no cost to yourself. And you can market yourself based on your [client] experience - [with] the Internet and all these other options, social media, you can use it to promote yourself and the fact that you are someone people want to work with."

Belleau mentions a friend of his who owns and manages restaurants, who pays to receive his Yelp! reviews every morning. "He responds to it and learns from it, and he therefore is more successful," he says. They also identify and reward satisfied customers. "They say, 'Hello, would you like a gin-and-tonic?' You feel like you're special, and that they're paying attention to you."

While they might not receive many Yelp! reviews, attorneys can take similar steps, Belleau says. "It's an opportunity that's potentially lost by a lot of attorneys because they're not focusing on this experience," he says. "You have an opportunity to distinguish yourself by the degree to which you can take care of your clients. Research shows they are willing to pay more for your service. And they will relay that message to their friends and family members. Law relies so much on word-of-mouth."

Kenneth Grady at Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago - who is noted as an early adopter of Six Sigma process-improvement techniques - agrees that solos and small firms have an easier time reengineering themselves to a more client-focused mindset and processes. "When you get into larger firms, you have a more complex, diverse client base, and it gets a bit more complicated to sort out some of the pieces," he says.

Hearing the voice of the client. Grady recommends that attorneys and firms start by asking their clients what aspects of service are most important to them - hearing the "voice of the client," in Six Sigma terms.

"What your clients want can vary significantly depending on your practice area and your locale," he says. If you're in criminal law practice, your clients may want access to you 24-7, because they have problems that come up at three in the morning. If you're a personal injury litigator, they might value frequent updates on their status. "It will vary, but the starting point is always [to] find out what your clients want."

Then, use this feedback to determine what you and your firm do very well, middling, and not so well, perhaps on a 1-to-5 scale. Speculate about how your main competitors would score. "Every lawyer probably knows a dozen competitors they're up against every day, and somebody's considering whom to use: 'Joe is known for doing this well, and Sally is known for doing that very well,'" he says.

An attorney or firm can't be all services to all clients, so you need to focus on performing well in the areas your clients value most, Grady says. "But, in order to do well on the things your clients care about, you're going to need to make a conscious choice to not do so well on things your clients don't care about," he says. "That's difficult for lawyers because they believe they must do well on everything. They're perfectionists." But given the limited resources most lawyers have, it's important to focus on what matters most and let other things drop to the bottom, Grady says.

Ethical obligations trump everything else. In doing that triaging, however, attorneys cannot give short shrift to their ethical obligations, even if those are not high on the client's list, Grady says. "You always have to start with, what are your professional obligations? You should always meet those," he says. "You must meet a filing deadline, even if your client doesn't care about it. We're not talking about failing to provide high-quality legal product, in terms of your legal analysis."

But an attorney does not need to do a "fabulous job writing a complaint" or house themselves in a fancy office that "shows I am a pillar of the community," Grady says. "Clients may not care a thing about it." Regarding the latter, he adds, "Some clients may argue that they come in and get a little bit worried: 'Where is all the money coming to pay for this?'" He adds pointedly, "Your professional obligations do not require that you have a fancy office."

Midsized and larger practices - strive for consistent, firmwide quality

The client calculus becomes more complicated for midsized and larger firms because they have more disparate practice areas, and their clients might value different things - which requires a certain amount of segmentation. "Not all clients are equal in what they value," Grady says. "You need to realize what you're dealing with."

But firms should be aware of what each client values and make sure they receive consistent service as the firm grows and the client deals with multiple attorneys over time, he says.

"Firms, as they grow from one lawyer to several, deliver inconsistent service," Grady says. "Lawyers have not gotten together and aligned themselves on, 'We do this well and don't focus on that.' If lawyer A does this well but lawyer B doesn't do this well, you're not delivering a consistent experience. You won't be the law firm [about which] the client says, 'No matter who I deal with there, I always get excellent service.'"

Law firms need to think of themselves as institutions rather than collections of people practicing under the same name, he says. "Clients expect a consistently high level of service across the institution, whatever the attribute. If you go into any retail store, you would expect to get the same experience as if you went into another store in the same chain. If you went to one Walmart and the price was really low, and you went into another Walmart and the price was really high, you wouldn't know what Walmart stood for."

Transparency, convenience, simplicity

Calloway of the Oklahoma State Bar has specific ideas about how lawyers can upgrade their services. For one thing, the profession needs to become more transparent about how it operates, he says, noting that more and more small firms are publishing standard price lists online.

"There's been that tendency in all types of professional service firms to be that man behind the curtain who we're not supposed to pay attention to," Calloway says. Sometimes it's about being upfront and telling the client, for example, "This [case] isn't too complicated, unless it gets messed up this or that way," he says.

While it's always helpful to have an initial meeting with a client in person, Calloway thinks videoconferences, webcams, and Skype are underused alternatives for clients who already know their attorneys well and don't have to make an in-person judgment. "If your corporate counsel or company president wants a quick consultation, unless you're located very close by, why shouldn't you set up a videoconference?" he says.

Attorneys and firms also need to make sure that they're delivering information in a way that's useful to the client, Calloway says. For example, 10- and 12-page documents might no longer be the best vehicle in an age where people's reading habits are shaped by the Internet and even texting. "You really want to use that simpler reading level" and shorter messaging, he says. "Lawyers use the language they were taught. Simplicity is better, and that hasn't been something that has been viewed as important for lawyers. We embrace complexity because that's our strong suit."

Firms also should take advantage of cloud-based portals to exchange documents conveniently and securely with clients, Calloway says. "Instead of emailing documents across insecure email [networks], you can just email the client and say, 'I've dropped another document.' And the fact that they can log into the repository and see the documents you've shared - what a great service!" (For more on secure client portals, see Biz&Tek in the October IBJ.)

Listen and respond to client complaints

According to Belleau, top client complaints include getting too little information on their case's progress and too-complicated bills they don't understand and that are higher than they expected.

"They never return my phone calls. I don't know what's going on. Why is this [bill] so complicated?" he summarizes. "The client is seen almost as an adversary rather than as a partner. Attorneys think short-term rather than long-term: Quick in, quick out, cash the check and move on to the next opportunity. Successful businesses think long term. It's a strategy."

For attorneys to be strategic, they need to have processes in place that govern, for example, the maximum amount of time before they return a phone call, Belleau says. And while veteran attorneys are certainly busy, they need to think about the message sent by the lack of voicemail and email that he encountered - especially as more clients are from younger generations.

"You either embrace [changing technology] or you're going to be in trouble," he says, recalling that the CEO of Chicago-based Groupon, Andrew Mason, born in 1980, was a top client at Winston. "It was frustrating for me. I can't imagine how somebody born in 1980 is going to react to only being able to leave a handwritten message." But of course there's more to client service than the latest technology, he adds, noting that returning phone calls promptly, for example, is a decades-old issue in the profession.

Perhaps the easiest and friendliest way to find out what clients want is to take the traditional restaurateur approach of following up, comment-card-style, after a matter is finished to ask what the experience was like and what needs to be improved, Belleau says.

"Find out from them what their expectations were, and find out if they were met," he says. "And then the client knows that's something you care about, even if they never fill out the survey. And then look at the responses and make the effort to respond and improve things. That's something that's simple enough, and a lot of businesses do, but I wonder how many attorneys do?"

Calloway has a final word of reality: It's helpful to keep in mind that most people do not seek out lawyers at happy times of their lives. "People don't come to a law firm because something great has happened," he says. "They've been sued, fired, injured, arrested - you can go through the laundry list. It's important to keep that in mind, and keep things as simple and easy as possible."

Ed Finkel
Ed Finkel is an Evanston-based freelance writer.
edfinkel@earthlink.net

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