When I think about servicing a client, a metronome starts up in my head: tick-tock, tick-tock. Timeliness is an integral component of quality service. When servicing a client it is imperative to respond and invoice in a timely manner, and to use time wisely.
As songwriter Tom Petty wrote, “The waiting is the hardest part.” Timely responses are the cornerstone of the service business—and make no mistake, lawyers are in the service business. To illustrate, think about an experience in a restaurant. When you enter you expect someone to greet you, someone to take your order, someone to check on you, someone to deliver your food and someone to bring the check. If you’ve ever waited an inordinate amount of time to place your order, to receive your food, or to pay the check, you understand just how much a delay can damage one’s perception of the overall experience. It’s also likely you won’t “come back soon” or have anything nice to report about the experience to your friends and colleagues.
The expectations—and stakes—for a lawyer are not much different. Clients expect you to call them back, notify them when a change in the law affects their interests, draft ironclad agreements, explain the possible results for a course of action, advocate on their behalf, keep them out of trouble, and follow up with them every step of the way. A follow-up is much different today than it was 20 years ago. Where follow-up used to be a meeting, or at least a telephone call, in this age of electronic communication a follow-up can be as simple as an email or a text. In fact many clients do not even want to have meetings or telephone conferences because they are burdensome and expensive, but the clients still expect you to get them the information they need.
While an invoice is not the best way to tell a client what is happening in his or her case, handled correctly it can be a reliable and consistent method to communicate what you have been doing on the client’s behalf. When keeping track of time, a lawyer should prepare a bill like it is being prepared to support a fee motion for the court.
An example of a “good invoice gone astray” is one where a lawyer (or secretary) has whisked through the emails and billed 0.1 hours for each email sent and received that day and has described it simply as “review email” or “prepare email.” An example of a comprehensive invoice is one where the lawyer indicates who was involved, what the lawyer did, and what prompted the action. For example, “email correspondence with John Doe regarding responses to requests for production” or “email correspondence with Sally Jones regarding preparing an affidavit in support of summary judgment.” As a client, which would you rather receive?
Billing with specificity is just as important for flat-rate billers. Lawyers need to remember that the invoice is not just for getting paid but also for providing information to the client. Even a flat-rate biller should provide information to the client about what was done and when—i.e., “7/5/12: Prepared employee manual draft and emailed to client with request for review.”
The timeliness with which an invoice is sent is just as important as the quality of the bill. Cash flow is certainly an issue for many law firms, but if the billing attorney is not the one who is looking at the monthly cash flow, it is easy to forget that bills must be sent on a regularly scheduled basis. I know solo lawyers who set aside the first of every month to prepare bills—no matter what day of the week it is. These attorneys are militant about sending bills on the first, and as a result their billing, bookkeeping, and client communications are kept up to date. Moreover, prompt invoicers do not usually have cash flow issues.
The final component of client service is using your time wisely. Usually when a lawyer thinks about time management and efficiency, it is about improving their bottom line, not providing a client service. But time management and efficiency are the most important client services. Clients appreciate lawyers who know what they are doing and are efficient about it.
Recently I had a consult that demonstrated this point perfectly. A prospective client set an appointment for a flat-rate consultation. The prospect declined to give my assistant specific details, but said only that he wanted me to review his contract and advise him of his rights and advise if he could go to work for someone else.
As it turned out, he was a whistleblower in the colloquial sense but not necessarily in the legal sense. Because of the facts, the state statute did not provide the protection or relief he was seeking. I explained what I saw as the strengths and weaknesses of his potential case. I also advised him that he might have a Sarbanes-Oxley claim, but I would need to look at the law more closely because I had not reviewed the act in the last few years.
At this point our consultation had already far exceeded the time I normally set aside for consults—we were closing in on the two-hour mark. Despite this, upon hearing that I would have to look at the law to give him advice, the prospective client’s manner became rude and disrespectful.
While he had refused to provide the contract or facts in advance of the consult, he asked me why I even met with him if I was not familiar with the law. He further stated that he would never have set the appointment if he thought that I did not have the experience in employment law.
It was not easy, but I ended the consult as soon as I could. I eventually had to stand up at the table so he would understand that we were done. I told him that I was not going to charge him the consult fee, I wanted him to be satisfied, and he clearly needed to find another lawyer to answer his questions and meet his needs.
My takeaway from that meeting was the reminder that clients expect us to be superheroes. While I was outraged at how rude the prospective client was to me, in hindsight, I understand his desire for information and his lack of understanding of the profession. Nonlawyers believe that any lawyer will know all the answers when a lawyer’s real job is to know where to get the answers.
I had a professor in law school who would become seriously angry every time someone started an answer with “I think.” He would say that judges don’t care what you think; they care what you know. To this day, every time I say “I think” my stomach does a little back flip.
Established clients want immediate answers just as much as potential ones do. I cannot tell you the number of times my clients have used me as a sounding board, therapist or moral compass—not something that is in the job description but is part of the job nonetheless.
Servicing clients is a big part of a lawyer’s job. By understanding that you have to respond to your clients’ questions, invoice your clients regularly and in a comprehensive manner, and remain confident and knowledgeable at all costs, you have a great head start to keeping your clients happy, which is really the name of the game.