As a senior in-house legal executive at a Fortune 50 company, I saw both inside and outside counsel shine and blunder in their client service. Based on my experience, below are some of the most critical ways to provide excellent service. While some of these may seem common sense, lawyers at some of the most prestigious firms did not always meet these guidelines. As my grandfather always said, “common sense isn’t all that common.”
Understand the Client’s Objectives and Needs
When embarking on a new matter, take the time to understand what the client’s objectives and needs are. For example, if a client is interested in settling a case. You do not want to spend inordinate amounts of time working on a case—unless it is to position it for settlement. If it is an agreement or deal that you are working on, you want to know what provisions are “deal breakers,” “nice to haves,” and “who cares”?
And beyond the matter, you want to know how the client operates. Does she prefer to communicate via email, or does she like phone calls? Does she want lengthy memos or bullet points in emails?
Also, your contact may not be the final decision maker—so what does she need in terms of timing. And if the client gives you a deadline, you should meet it. If you cannot, let them know as soon as possible with a new timeframe. Last-minute surprises are never a good thing.
Without fail, all of my new in-house hires would at some point tell me that they were shocked by the lack of responsiveness from outside counsel.
I know you are busy and have a million things to do. And yet I recommend if you only do one thing—that one thing should be to respond to the client. It does not have to be a complete response. You can say I got your message and will get back to you shortly. Making sure that your client feels heard is essential.
Be Proactive, Have an Approach, and Anticipate Questions
I will never forget one day receiving a court order from outside counsel, and he just wrote, “WOW!!!” on the transmission. Nothing else, just “WOW!!!” You probably guessed that this was not an order that made my heart sink—instead, it made my heart fall.
Better client service would have been a phone call or a note explaining the decision and the various strategies to consider. You want to put yourself in the clients’ shoes and present them with information and options. You also want to anticipate what questions they may ask and your answers.
Now one of my regional law firms was exceptional at this—not only would they send me emails (which is how I liked to communicate) with how new decisions could impact my cases, but they did this in some cases where they were not my outside firm. And that is how they expanded the number of matters I sent to them.
Clients Are People Too
As lawyers, we all work a lot of hours, and it can be draining. People enjoy working with people they know and with whom they have personal relationships. Take the time to get to know your client and make interesting small talk that shows you listen and care. If they tell you that their son is going through the college application process, later on, ask them how it is going and if he made any decisions. Developing personal relationships can make you a counsel of choice. It also makes getting an extension easier and having difficult conversations more comfortable.
Similarly, the more you know a client’s industry and business, the more valuable you are. Take the time to set up alerts to be on top of the latest. Also, ask them what is going on. The more you know, the better able you are to craft solutions.
Recognize Your Client’s Contribution and Ask for Feedback
Often outside counsel takes for granted the client’s contribution in resolving a matter of bringing a deal to fruition. Let them know that you appreciate what they did. Better yet, let their management know how valuable their contribution was. I retired from in-house practice several years ago, and one firm still sends me notes about my contributions. And those notes make me very happy, and when someone asks me about that firm, I always have positive things to say.
When I was in-house counsel, I always made it a point to recognize the contribution of my business partners. Without them, I would not have been as successful. It also created a collaborative team atmosphere that I believe is necessary to have excellent results.
Finally, at the conclusion (or during) a matter, ask how it is going and what you could improve. Nothing says customer service like asking for feedback and then acting on it.
Exceptional client (or manager) service can be a career differentiator. Investing time and effort in developing the necessary skills will help you launch and maintain a successful career.