GPSOLO January/February 2008
Customer Service Essentials
Haresh arrived at my law office, visibly agitated. He thought he had taken all the right steps to start his clothing business. He had formed a corporation. His business partner (and childhood friend), Neel, shared his vision for growth. They had a written shareholders’ agreement. But now these 50/50 partners were deadlocked on how to achieve their vision, and the business was rapidly deteriorating. “I don’t understand—what happened?” Haresh pleaded. A quick look at the shareholders’ agreement revealed that it contained no method for resolving stalemates. No dispute resolution terms, no procedures for accountability between the partners . . . in fact, it lacked so many important provisions that I remember thinking a first-year associate working with a form book could have cobbled together a better document. “Who prepared this agreement?” I asked hesitantly. “My immigration attorney,” replied Haresh.
One of the great joys of general, solo, and small firm practice is the freedom to practice law exactly as you want. But stories like that of Haresh and Neel (not their real names) underscore one of the dangers and challenges of general, solo, and small firm practice: taking on too much, or in too foreign an area of expertise, and therefore failing to service clients properly. With everything you must do—getting new clients, servicing the clients, billing the clients, and maintaining relationships with the clients—how can you keep up? In short, you need to focus on the “three C’s” of good lawyering: competency, communication, and creativity. Without these, your newest client may well become your latest former client.
Competency has two factors: choices and currency. What areas of practice have you chosen, and are you keeping current in all—not just some—of them? “You can’t be all things to all people,” cautions Rochelle Lisner, founder of Dynamic Business Growth (www.dynamicbusinessgrowth.com), a sales-training and team-building company based in New York City. Lisner has seen the ill effects when companies accept business that doesn’t suit them because they are terrified of not having enough coming through the door. “It’s a nightmare,” she relates. “They’ll take on a dog of a customer, spend far more time on it than they ordinarily would or should have (which reduces their profit margin), put other customers aside (which harms the relationship with those clients), have the tension and stress of ‘am I doing this right or am I a walking lawsuit?’ . . . and for what? It’s absolutely not worth it,” she states. She suggests that attorneys spend the time they would on the “dog” beefing up their pipeline of appropriate referrals instead. “You need real clarity about who you are and what you do,” Lisner offers. “Otherwise, people don’t know what to refer to you. Think of three kinds of clients you’ve helped, or legal matters you’ve handled, and focus on those. You’ll be surprised how much easier it will be for people to keep you in mind when you have a laser-like focus.”
Seth Borden, a partner in Kreitzman, Mortensen & Borden (www.kmblabor.com), agrees. “You don’t use a dentist if you need open-heart surgery,” he says. “We are labor and employment lawyers for management. That’s all we do, and we’re committed to that focus.” Borden points out that, although it seems tempting, accepting work such as plaintiffs’ employment cases could have negative long-term effects for his firm. “It’s very enticing when you have, for example, a friend who got fired from a large company. I’ve been on the other side of those cases, so I know how to handle them. But there could be a future conflict if my firm ever wanted to represent that company . . . and that’s where the real, ongoing work is.” As a result, Borden has developed a strong network of attorneys in other specialties to whom he makes referrals. “I’ve found that our best relationships have been with other specialized boutique firms who serve a similar client base,” he notes. “We allow each other to provide added value without direct competition.”
Ronald Paltrowitz, Esq., shares that mind-set. He uses a general practitioner model for serving his privately held small and midsized company clients. “Just as your GP doctor makes sure you’re in good basic health, I make sure clients are in good legal health,” he says. “But if your GP hears a heart murmur, she’ll call in a cardiologist. If you break your leg, she’ll send you to an orthopedist. Likewise, if there are issues beyond the usual course of business—such as public securities or tax planning issues—I’ll refer [clients] to my network of colleagues to make sure my clients get the specialized care they need.”
Similarly, Olivera Medenica has “of counsel” relationships between several attorneys and her firm, Wahab & Medenica LLC (www.wrlawfirm.com). “We handle commercial and non-patent IP law,” she says, “but some of our clients have immigration or patent issues that are closely intertwined. It has arisen often enough that we need a close relationship with those specialists—not just referral sources.” Medenica admits that she has occasionally stepped outside her usual bounds of practice. “Every once in a while, a current client will have needs in another area—an uncontested divorce or a simple will, for example. And sometimes, they really don’t want to go to another attorney.” In those situations, Medenica reaches out to attorneys in those areas for an overseeing, supervisory eye. She is also very careful to explain to the clients in advance these services are outside her normal expertise.
Even if you have chosen a particular field of expertise, it is easy to fall behind if you don’t keep abreast of changes in the law. Courts, legislatures, technology, society—all are a never-ending source of new laws, as well as interpretations of old ones. Most states have recognized this and have instituted mandatory CLE requirements. But CLE requirements don’t have to be fulfilled with courses in your primary practice areas. (See the sidebar “Ways to Keep Current” on page 17 for tips on maximizing the effectiveness of those courses.) “It’s absolutely vital to stay current but a real challenge to find the time,” says Borden.
The second “C” of good lawyering is communication. By the time clients reach your firm, they’re nervous. Maybe they’re in a jam and need help (they’ve been sued); or they see the writing on the wall and want to forestall a crisis (their marriage is on the rocks); or they’re taking a big step out of their comfort zone (they’re starting a new business with other partners). It’s also possible that your legal fees were not an anticipated part of their normal budgeting process, assuming they even had a budgeting process to speak of.
Ethics and malpractice prevention courses emphasize the importance of good communication. Clients want to be reassured that their matter will not languish or be forgotten. It doesn’t take much—just be accessible and responsive. You can’t necessarily answer every telephone call or e-mail immediately, but you can set a policy for yourself of responding within one or two business days. Or, if you’re out of the office, let people know when you will respond (“I’m in trial until Wednesday”). Let them know if you’ve made contingency plans (“You can call Jane Doe, who will be handling your matter in my absence”). Out-of-office e-mail autoresponders, receptionists, voice-mail messages—all can be used effectively to convey this information. Consider a tickler system for touching base with all of your clients on a regular basis. This ensures you know what’s going on in their business, and they’re reminded of what you’re doing for them.
Unreliability is also a perennial complaint among clients. “My lawyer said she’d get the document/information/settlement check, etc., to me by such-and-such a date and she never did!” Be good to your word. Deliver when you promise. If you can’t meet the deadline (and we’re all human), let your client know as soon as possible. Give a new deadline for when you reasonably think the task can be completed. Clients may have unrealistically high expectations that need to be massaged carefully. “I had an investment client who was used to quick decisions. Because the Trademark Office can take five to six months just to assign an examiner to an application, I knew that I had to forewarn him up front—and repeatedly—what to expect,” relates Daniel Abraham, a copyright, trademark, and licensing attorney in New York City. As Medenica also alluded, if the client’s request is beyond your expertise, especially if fees for other lawyers may be incurred, this should be aired and cleared in a timely manner with the client.
Another way to reassure your clients is by “speaking their language.” As Lisner points out, “Your role as attorney is both problem-solver and translator. You’re their guide through this strange, arcane world of The Law.” Legal situations produce a lot of stress and tension for clients. Legal issues are intimidating, as are attorneys themselves. Not understanding what their lawyer is talking about further compounds clients’ anxiety. “If you’re going to speak legalese, you might as well be speaking Swahili. It’ll be just as effective,” she retorts. “All languages can be translated, even if not perfectly,” adds Lisner, whose first language was Yiddish. To hone your “translation skills,” she suggests writing articles and speaking to audiences on subjects related to your practice area. “It helps prevent you from sounding like Professor Pedantic from Federal Taxation class.”
If communications requires good people skills, the third “C,” creativity, requires good lawyer skills. Clients are happy when you solve their problems, when you’re solution oriented, not a “deal breaker.” That’s hard to do when you don’t have experience in the area. “There should be a nexus of some kind between your core practice and any supposedly ‘outside’ areas,” comments Abraham. “Otherwise, you’d better be armored against malpractice,” he adds.
Creativity is more than just “winging it.” You have to know the rules before you can bend them. This served Abraham exceptionally well when negotiating on behalf of a graphic artist client against a major pharmaceutical corporation. “My client had been approached to design cartoon characters for an advertising campaign,” he relates. “The corporation proposed a relatively low buyout. By intimately understanding the concept of ‘exclusivity,’ not to mention copyright laws and licensing, we had a huge win. We retained significant ownership rights, secured additional payments, ensured name credit—that last piece alone led to several more significant clients for her. Also, by knowing what the market would bear, [we] received nearly three times the compensation originally proposed . . . yet relinquished far less.” It helps to know the standards in your clients’ industries. “When you know what trade custom generally doesn’t permit but occasionally happens (such as name credit), you have a better sense of what to hold onto and what to ultimately give away in a negotiation,” says Abraham.
Creativity also involves looking at what has been done successfully in other areas of law or business and seeing how they can be applied. Magazines regularly feature “best practices” articles, which are worth investigating. You might also learn from your own clients. “We picked up the flat-fee pricing models of our business clients and applied them to the pricing of certain projects of our own—such as partnership agreements, customer agreements, and business formation,” says Paltrowitz. “We’ve had a terrific response, partly because we can quote a definite price.” Networking with other lawyers is also a wonderful source of creative information. Attorneys at larger firms have the benefit of in-house expertise, but solos and small firm lawyers can create their own “external” brain trust for exchanging ideas and approaches.
Customer service involves more than just doing legal work. It includes choosing clients who are the right fit for your firm’s size and expertise. It includes keeping current, not just on law but also on trends affecting your clients’ issues. It includes clear and timely communication. And it includes thinking creatively. It’s a tall order. But if you can wrap yourself around that, you’re bound to have a stable of very happy clients.
Ways to Keep Current
Yes, keeping current is time consuming, but there are added benefits, too. Here are a few suggestions.
- Attend CLE courses. It helps to attend courses in your areas of expertise. But you can gain a lot from an area that might be complementary to your practice. Use that to network with possible referral sources (or the panelists).
- Write articles. Sometimes the best way to learn about a subject is to share it with others. Writing articles—whether for publication on your website/e-zine or otherwise—is a good way both to explore an issue and to communicate it.
- Speak in public. Educating others helps you stay current and discuss issues eloquently. Consider teaching a class, serving on a panel, or leading a CLE course.
- Start a blog. Wrestling with a subject daily is sure to turn you into an expert in short order. Blogging requires regular content submissions—although not necessarily as long (or in as scholarly a tone) as written articles. It also forces you to read what’s already being written on your subject.
- Step up to the Bar. Join (or chair!) a committee that focuses on your practice area. In addition to the ABA, there are often state, county, and city bar associations to choose from.
- Go online. Depending on your expertise, there may be federal, state, or local agencies whose websites provide information relevant to your practice area(s). Also, www.law.com and www.hg.org have articles on a wide range of topics. Don’t forget non-legal websites, as they can help you spot upcoming issues.
- Attend conferences. Whether law-related conferences or business conferences with a legal component (or breakout session), these are a terrific way to network with other people who are interested in your area and to find out about the latest trends.
- Network with other lawyers. If they don’t practice in your area, they could be a good referral source. If they do practice in your area, they could become part of your brain trust. Meet them for lunch—it’s a conducive environment for collegial discussion.
- Talk to your clients. Ask them about their business. What trends are they seeing? What do they read? Where do they network? After all, the flow of expertise needn’t be a one-way street.
For more than a decade, Nina L. Kaufman, Esq., has served as outside general counsel to hundreds of small and midsized businesses in New York City, both in private practice and as a former partner of Paltrowitz & Kaufman LLP. She has just published a new book, 100 Vital Questions to Ask Before Going into Business with Someone Else. She may be reached via www.askthebusinesslawyer.com or at email@example.com.