THE TITLE OF THIS COLUMN MAY OFFEND a few readers. But in today’s society, we all spend some extra money occasionally to save time, whether it’s paying a neighborhood kid to mow the lawn or purchasing a few items at a local convenience store when they would be less expensive at the grocery store a mile or two away.
The private practice of law is becoming more competitive each day. Spending extra change on a soft drink at the local convenience store might be inconsequential to most people. But whether the client is an individual or a big business, legal fees are a big-ticket item, which will always be under more scrutiny. One way to respond to competitive pressure is to make certain to be as convenient as possible for the clients. While successful law firms have long attempted to combine good results with good client service, now is a good time to re-examine the law firm process and procedures from a convenience point of view.
Attitudes have changed remarkably about what constitutes quick service since the time when the standard for business communication was to post a letter and wait three or four days for the response. Saving your client’s time is an important value. Almost everyone seems to be more time-challenged these days.
Large law firms have located in downtown areas closest to their biggest clients, courthouses and large financial institutions. It is also common for a large law firm to be located in the same building as its largest client or lease space in a client-owned building where the client was headquartered. If there were questions about a document in the pre-email days, it was handy for counsel to be an elevator ride away.
Law firms that catered to individual clients with personal legal matters already have experience with accommodating clients with late appointments or evening calls so they do not have to unnecessarily miss work.
RESPONDING TO THE CLIENT’S SCHEDULE
In this more competitive environment, some consumer-oriented firms may offer regular evening hours of operation. A potential client who would have a reduction in pay for business hour appointments might prefer a law firm that was open late every Thursday evening. Even a small business owner might appreciate not leaving his or her business during prime business hours.
“Open Thursday evenings” might be a marketing strategy and a client service strategy. It would likely not be too hard to implement, as law firm staff might easily trade working a Thursday evening for taking Friday afternoon off or not being charged sick leave for a medical appointment.
But even if the law firm does not change formal operating hours, today’s successful law firm should try to be convenient and consider the client’s schedule.
Many will believe that an initial consultation with a potential client should be done in a face-to-face setting. But almost every lawyer has represented an out-of-state client where the initial contact (or perhaps all contact) has been done by telephone and correspondence, or made an appointment for an evening telephone conference when either the client’s or the lawyer’s schedule required it.
Having a digital client file, with all documents scanned into the file along with notes, calendaring and other information, makes scheduling a client phone conference from the lawyer’s home in the evening much less painful. There’s no need to take the file home, as it can be viewed remotely, and all notes, to-do assignments and billing entries can be done contemporaneously. If the client has email access at home, documents can be shared via email.
More computers have high-resolution webcams. It may be time for lawyers to suggest more videoconferences with clients, although protecting confidentiality will be a concern that affects what system is used.
Convenience may involve decentralizing the traditional law office into several satellite locations. Imagine a setup that has a small waiting room, a receptionist station and an interview office with several client chairs, a small desk and a 60-inch high-definition television on the wall. The experience of a videoconference on a large, high-resolution screen is much more personal than on a small computer screen. The lawyer could sit in his primary office and have a conference with clients in the south side office at 2 p.m. and the west side office at 3 p.m. The staff people in the reception space would be there to greet the clients and usher them into the office. But typically they would not be answering the telephone. They would be doing billing, deposition scheduling or document production just as if they were at the traditional location. They would be readily accessible via email, telephone or webcam call from co-workers.
The lawyer could print documents directly in the interview room for clients to examine, or summon a staff person should they need assistance or have a document that must be scanned and sent to the lawyer. The client would be pleased to be in a neighborhood law office convenient to them.
A staff meeting held via videoconference would also be much more effective on the large screen than by telephone or thumbnail-sized videoconferencing.
THE LAW STORE
What about an actual store for legal information and services where people can walk in and get their needs met without an appointment? That may not seem to make sense for a law firm as it would be challenging to match walk-in “customers” with staffing requirements. Yet in Palo Alto, Calif., lawyer-entrepreneur Raj Abhyanker is attempting to do something much like that with his LegalForce BookFlip store. The store has offerings of books and magazines much like those that might be found in any bookstore—if you still can locate one.
But the store is also staffed with people called “legal concierges” who do not give legal advice but direct customers to resources, including books, self-help forms, Google Nexus tablets for sale with relevant apps or a private conference with available attorneys there at the location. No advance appointment is required. LegalForce BookFlip has already been profiled in publications such as Fast Company and Inc. LegalForce focuses on intellectual property and business formation issues.
Most law firms would not be interested in developing retail walk-in services for nonclients. Yet there likely is a market for reading material for family law clients or those starting new business ventures. What about offering a premium notary service to the public where anyone could walk in and have signatures notarized? Legal identification would be required and scanned. And if a person was purchasing an automobile from a relative stranger, a video record of the “closing” could be emailed to the parties, or a standard bill of sale or automobile purchase contract provided. Our current business practices and to some extent our ethics rules do not contemplate providing legal documents to nonclients and overseeing their execution. But why shouldn’t a lawyer provide this service, as opposed to some anonymous do-it-yourself online service?
FOCUS ON CONVENIENCE
While these innovative ideas may prove very important, one can implement some basic strategies today with little planning or expense.
First, it should be an office policy that clients should not wait a substantial time to start a scheduled appointment. No one appreciates wasting time in a waiting room in a doctor’s or lawyer’s office. Discipline yourself and instruct your staff that no one should wait over three or four minutes past the time of a scheduled appointment in your office.
For new clients, record in the file any particular scheduling challenge the client may face and provide standard information packets to each new client in a folder. Some of the handouts could include matter-specific reading material. Others could contain information about the firm. But always ask the clients if they would like a digital copy e-mailed to them in addition to the folder or in lieu of the folder of handouts. We will be working with some clients who are paper-oriented and others who are completely digital for some time to come.
Someone in your firm should learn about the tools for videoconferencing and screen sharing. It is relatively easy to use these tools, and they likely will become more commonplace. Staff may even help clients understand how to use the tools they own. (“Oh, you have an iPhone and a home Wi-Fi network. Have you ever used FaceTime? Many of our clients use it a lot with us.”)
Making your services more convenient to clients can only yield positive results for your law practice.