Legal services is legal services. Of a kind, they are the same.
Consider your service lines:
- Private client (wills, probate and tax);
- Commercial Property;
- Dispute Resolution;
- Family – public and private law;
- Personal Injury and Clinical Negligence;
I am not ignoring the niche practice areas – anti-trust, EU, regulatory, energy and many more – but the carpet is densely packed with many firms appearing and acting much the same as the next one.
On one level this is hardly surprising: the regulatory landscape is the same; the mechanics of garnering a profit are well tested; and the process of education, training and development hasn’t changed much in the last 15+ years.
I am sure there are many lawyers who feel that law should be left alone. This applies across the entire spectrum: IT, regulatory and client demands. There are still swathes of the profession who think they know best, although this is (increasingly) on the wane; but I sense is being driven more by the need to have to do it – keeping up with your peer group – rather than wanting to.
Assuming that all firms incline to the view that they need to implement at least some of the changes, then no doubt there will be a greater emphasis on the client dynamic. Clients first might actually come to mean something.
However, as much as it pains me to say it, there is a real risk that even with the re-branding/networking exercises underway that firms will still look and feel pretty much the same. In short, they will all go for the middle ground even though they will come under increasing pressure both from above and below. This might have been safe territory in the past but it will exacerbate the ‘me too’ feel that so many firms need to move away from.
For me, there are two crucial areas to focus on:
- Ensuring that every fee earner reaches their full potential (they are the most of what they can be); and
- EXCELLENCE in client service.
Up to now firms have paid lip service to both and it leaves them having to play catch up.
No firm that I worked at put in place a formal development plan for its solicitors (the firms’ biggest investment by a long shot). So much of fee earners was expected but in return they were palmed off with the odd CPD course here or the occasional internal event. I remember a conversation with the Training Manager about completing, with some sponsorship, a MBA. I was quite prepared to fund half the fees. He did not dismiss the idea out of hand but made it clear that my chances of it happening were … you guessed it – a big fat zero.
Now I am not suggesting that an MBA is some Utopian finish line but it would be a start. Another idea that I had, which at the time I took from Nissan and Toyota, was to allow trainee solicitors to undertake work experience with the other departments in the firm: finance, HR and facilities.
Now I accept that a lot of firms are not big enough to cope with some of these demands – they are, after all, small businesses – but that is no excuse for allowing people to drift and not manage or mentor them.
In a lot of cases a number of partners that I came into contact with should never have been allowed with 100 yards of a trainee. They were totally unsuitable to manage other people, and seemed to think there job was to make life as difficult as possible in the hope that the sink or swim approach would produce a better lawyer.
So if you really want to shape your firm then start shaping your people. Don’t leave things to chance. Don’t just speak to them at billing times or when they have had a complaint. Make it job #1 to spend time every day, week and month ensuring that they reach their full potential.
Perhaps more compelling right now is the need to go beyond the ubiquitous client charter and install a Wizard of WOW.
Sorry to those of you who think this title sounds stupid but ask yourself this question: who right now is delivering WOW client service of a level unparalleled in your sector? Not your firm you can be sure of that.
Partners rarely have time to manage the client relationship and have to trust to their team that they will do a reasonable job. But it is just that – reasonable. It is not superior or OTT and certainly very few clients that you speak to report of being super-pleased or WOWed. If they answer a client questionnaire they will say it was satisfactory. That is almost as bad as saying “Ho Hum” or “It was OK”. Hardly a glowing testimonial.
Can you imagine asking your client to do a video testimonial and to your surprise they said: “It was OK”. I would be embarrassed particularly if I had made client service my #1 priority.
Resource, resources, resources I hear you cry. My retort: excuses, excuses, excuses.
If you want to make a difference then you have to care enough to make it happen.
Put yourself in your client’s shoes. If you took as long to deal with things and charged the fee that you were proposing then what would you expect?
Start treating every client as a lifetime proposition and staying in contact with them even if the file has been closed. Don’t think that by contacting them you will be opening a can of worms. That suggests, in a circular way, that your service was patchy or worse still bordering on sub-standard.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand the pressures of running a business and sometimes it is not possible to please everyone and certainly it is difficult to remain committed to a client relationship when they owe a substantial sum of money whilst expecting the earth but you have to look beyond the operational to the Blue Ocean of possibility. You need to understand that these are merely the vicissitudes of running a legal practice but instead you need to be exacting on yourself and everybody in the practice to look at the outer limits of what is possible. This is not just (sales) hyperbole. This is reality. Knowing how far you can push things is important but my experience is that lawyers being lawyers they will always err on the side of caution, and so even if you came up with a radical notion of client service it is unlikely to pass through all the bureaucratic obstacles that will be erected. But that is no reason not to try.
It will be important to talk to your clients and understand their needs. You don’t need a focus group. Just a group of friendly clients who will give some honest feedback.
One thing is for sure – time is not on your side. October will soon be upon you and there is a lot of work to do in between just to prepare for outcomes focused regulation. Get a time line in place and make sure you stick to it. Aim to be the very best. Not as good as your nearest and dearest competitor.
The time is nigh. Go create a commotion.
~ JS ~