In many firms there is a great divide between lawyers and administrative staff that negatively affects the delivery of client services. One firm decided to do more than just talk about the problem. It instituted a program to bridge the divide across the firm.
All too often law firm support staff are not given information that would allow them to understand the importance of their roles in client relationships. The result is that inefficiencies—or worse—then arise in the delivery of client services. It can be tough to come up with innovative solutions to management problems like this one. But Bingham McCutchen, with nearly 1,000 lawyers and 1,200 management, paralegal, secretarial and support staff, found a way.
The firm instituted a program to act as a catalyst for administrative staff and lawyers to work cooperatively and, thereby, conquer the divide in the client service environment. The goal of the program was “to introduce administrative staff to the concepts of exceptional client service and to provide a context for their role within the delivery of services and the firm-client relationship.” Bingham’s program is showcased in this installment of Managing because it can serve as a model to other firms, no matter their size, as a way to begin to overcome the sometimes acrimonious relationship between staff and lawyers and help them work collaboratively toward common goals—giving the best service to and creating the best work products for their external clients.
I spoke with Lynn Carroll, the chief human resources officer of Bingham McCutchen, about this innovative program.
Designing the Program: The Pre-Workshop Survey
Carroll described how the firm commissioned consultant Susan Saltonstall Duncan to design a client service workshop for administrative staff. Duncan is the president of Rainmaking Oasis, a marketing and management consultancy based in Connecticut, and, I am proud to note, a fellow
Law Practice columnist. (You’ll find her Rainmaking column on page 58 of this issue.)
Duncan began by surveying the staff regarding how they would rate the importance of certain client service skill areas, such as responsiveness, timeliness, problem solving, courteousness and work-product quality. They were then asked to rate how well they thought their respective departments perform in each of these areas. The survey also included questions such as the following:
- What do you believe should be your department’s top three areas for focus or improvement in client service?
- What administrative department in the firm do you think is doing the best job of client service and why?
- What impediments make it difficult for you and your department to improve or excel at client service?
- What would help you personally to improve your client service skills or awareness?
Based on the feedback, Duncan then designed and delivered a workshop titled “Success through Excellent Service to Clients and Colleagues” in each of the firm’s offices.
The Workshop Content
Participants included secretaries, paralegals and administrative staff. And to emphasize the importance of client service—one of the firm’s core values—the firm made attendance at the workshops mandatory.
There were four core components of the program:
- Building an understanding of external client service and how it relates to firm success
- Identifying internal clients and the importance of internal client service
- Practices for achieving excellent client service
- A group exercise in which participants discussed strategies to improve client and colleague service
The workshop began with information on the costs of running the firm and how the firm’s work product pays the bills. It then moved into a discussion of the importance of client retention and how client service plays the most important role in it. Duncan emphasized to participants that, according to business statistics, 68 percent of clients who leave do so because of poor service and, in addition, that 80 percent of new business comes from referrals from very satisfied existing clients.
Most importantly, she informed participants about their own roles in delivering external client service as well as meeting the needs of internal clients.
The workshop focused on several best practices, and any firm that decides to deliver such a workshop will want to include specific strategies in these areas:
- Improving colleague relationships
- Nurturing external and internal client relationships
- Communicating effectively
- Producing excellent work and service
- Enhancing work flow and work product
- Helping lawyers and colleagues with time management
Group Think: Brainstorming Strategies for Improvement
For the last part of the workshop, participants broke into groups to discuss challenges to delivering top-notch client service and ways in which these challenges could be overcome. Challenges included increasing collaboration and team work; establishing reasonable expectations; increasing communication and understanding between lawyers and staff; and maintaining reasonable workloads.
Four major themes emerged among participants as impediments to delivering effective client service. These four are common to most firms and well worth noting here:
Communication and consistency
Communication is essential to building a collaborative and effective team. In addition, delivering consistent messages and having consistent policies allows everyone to be on the same page about expectations.
Roles and responsibilities
It’s no surprise to anyone that when roles and responsibilities are not clear, it is difficult to do one’s best. Making it a priority that everyone is aware of who does what contributes immeasurably to the delivery of excellent client service.
Role of lawyers
Lawyers often don’t see their support staff as an integral part of the client service team. The more appreciation and respect lawyers show to these essential members of the team, the more likely they will get back first-rate internal client service.
For firms with multiple offices, this is an important factor. Finding ways to reduce bureaucracy, increase responsiveness, communicate effectively across offices, and reduce the impersonal feel of dealing with individuals in different locations is essential to a successful client service program.
Follow-up Activities and Targeted Training
Similar workshops were also presented to the directors, supervisors and managers of Bingham McCutchen’s administrative staff. Specific content of their workshops included areas of improvement in department-level and firmwide client service, accompanied by suggested how-to strategies. The next steps in the process are taking place now, with Duncan returning to each office to talk about the themes that have come from the surveys and office workshops, as well as to give specific training to increase the client service skills of participants.
It’s a Powerful Message
Some important messages are certainly delivered when a firm designs such a program. Probably the most important message, though, is that staff are an essential part of what makes a firm successful (or unsuccessful, for that matter).
Providing information on how everyone fits into the firm’s vision of success, strategies for working collaboratively, and best practices for internal and external client services is assuredly a great way to foster a partnership between lawyers and staff in any firm. In the case of Bingham McCutchen, that fostering means that more than 2,200 people are an integral part of what makes the firm successful and after these workshops, participants have a much greater understanding of the importance of their individual roles.