- Client service is a crucial foundation to the long-term success of every law practice and every law firm
Client service is a crucial foundation to the long-term success of every law practice and every law firm. In today’s world, the importance of client service sometimes gets drowned out by the constant march of legal technology; the move to the cloud; and the demands to upgrade, automate and improve the flow of work within a law firm. Lawyers need to remember the words of professional services guru David Maister when he said in his book True Professionalism that “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This quote, often originally attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, is a reminder that “why” you do things is more important than “how.”
Recently, the ABA’s Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division published Innovative Legal Service Applications: A Guide to Improved Client Services by Lawrence S. Pascoe. Pascoe retired after 42 years of practicing law in Ottawa, Ontario. Superlative client service was a primary focus from his very first days as a lawyer. In the book, he shares numerous ideas and processes on how to create, implement and evaluate a client service-oriented practice, and also provides numerous examples of innovative applications.
His book serves to remind us that future proofing a law firm isn’t just about keeping up with evolving technology, but rather the core focus should be on evolving the client experience.
This can involve new technology, but sometimes it uses old technology or even no technology at all. It involves taking proven ideas and updating them for tomorrow. Many of the ideas Pascoe proposes are not costly or time-consuming to implement. Moreover, those client service improvements can be a blend of old and new—a mix of tried and true coupled with innovative or updated components.
We recently caught up with Pascoe to talk about the importance of client service to the long-term success of firms of all sizes.
Laurie, excelling at client service was the cornerstone of your approach to practicing law for your 42 years in practice. Why do you see client service as so important?
There are several reasons, but I would suggest the main one is increased business. Clients cannot easily judge their lawyer’s performance or even whether they received the best outcome possible, but they can judge whether they received good service and especially take note of excellent and innovative service. Most lawyers say they obtain a significant part of their business from repeat clients and referrals from clients. They must serve their client exceptionally well, or there will be no repeat or referral business.
Further, studies show that many malpractice claims and disciplinary complaints against lawyers are due to a lack of good service to clients. Good client service with proper client communication will significantly reduce those claims and complaints. Better service reduces the client’s stress and client surprises and improves fact finding. Devoting time to innovating client service is a nice creative break from the many repetitive tasks of practicing law and allows for greater job satisfaction and enjoyment when lawyers provide good innovative service.
You have often said that lawyers need to recognize that what is important to them may not be important to clients—can you explain what you mean by this?
Lawyers should put themselves in their clients’ shoes to think like clients rather than like lawyers. I believe that lawyers think appearances are more important than clients think they are. Clients care about substance over style. My rude awakening to this was early in my practice when I bragged to a client about how great her separation agreement looked when it was produced by a new word processor our office had just purchased. It allowed right-hand margins, proportional spacing and fancy fonts for the first time. The client justifiably interrupted me to say she did not care what the agreement looked like but rather what it said.
Many lawyers are still in denial when they believe that clients will not use the internet to find a lawyer because they would not use the internet to select a lawyer. As Jay Foonberg says, “It’s not the taste of the bait to the fisherman, but the taste of the bait to the fish.” Years ago, it was the same with the Yellow Pages because lawyers thought it was not a valid method to select a lawyer. Lawyers must evolve with their marketplace.
How can lawyers excel at client service before and just after they are retained?
Even before being retained, lawyers can provide prospective clients with helpful information, generally through a quality website. Good websites help educate the prospective client with general information about the law, the usual steps for their type of matter, information and documentation they will need to provide, pleadings or other documents that will have to be prepared, and the lawyer’s process and policies (including fees) to complete a particular case. Knowing these things will significantly reduce the client’s stress, make them better clients and get the attorney-client relationship off to a better start.
Lawyers can further provide online digital questionnaires that are easier for clients to complete and more efficient for lawyers to add to the electronic client file.
How can lawyers use technology to future proof their practices?
From a client service point of view, the possibilities are almost endless: Start with the technology you have and maximize your use of it for the benefit of clients. Review the features of your existing software to see how you can use them to better serve clients—functions as simple as creating and using a table of contents for all your longer client documents or learning to use the whiteboard collaboration features in your virtual meeting software. Create a digital client satisfaction questionnaire using Google Forms or Office 365 to email to clients during and after your representation. The key is to regularly spend time to make these improvements to enhance the client experience.
Does client service end when the retainer ends?
It does not have to. Lawyers can follow up periodically with clients to see if they have completed tasks they were supposed to do after the matter was closed. In addition, lawyers can add past clients to the firm’s digital newsletter to advise them of changes in the law that may affect them. Or they can schedule an email to each client to check on their well-being several months after the representation. All these applications are of service to the clients and keep the lawyer’s name in the clients’ minds, which will help generate repeat business and referrals.
What are three client service improvements most lawyers can do to future proof their practice?
Firstly, create a client manual—either a three-ring binder or a digital version in a secure online client portal, set up so the client can maintain their own organized file of all the documents on their matter, rather than have a messy stack of paper envelopes from their lawyer. Each manual could also contain educational articles and instructive memos written by the lawyers or experts on issues the client should know. This information would either repeat or supplement what the lawyer orally advised the client at a consultation.
Secondly, lawyers should make in-person client meetings more productive by using large client-facing monitors that mirror the lawyer’s computer screen. They would be used when reviewing and changing any draft documents with the client; when explaining the calculation of numbers for financial statements, support scenarios, and fee and disbursement estimates; and when completing checklists. The monitors allow the client to feel and be more a part of the process, something more and more clients want. Similarly, lawyers should become expert in displaying and maneuvering documents during virtual meetings, so clients feel engaged in those meetings as well.
Thirdly, lawyers should have a firm website that serves as an education hub for clients (and prospective clients), rather than being just a glorified brochure for the law firm. The website would have educational articles about the substantive law and processes for common legal matters, as well as how that lawyer operates, including the estimated fees and disbursements. To deal more efficiently with information gathering and sharing, the website would have a secure confidential client portal through which clients can securely review documents, upload requested documents and communicate with their lawyer. For example, client intake questionnaires and discovery responses would be accessible for clients to fill out on their own computer, allowing them more time to think about and collect the information needed, rather than do so in the firm waiting room. There is much more to say about servicing clients, which is why I wrote my book.