Outcomes Focused Regulation ~ A “Proper” standard of service

I haven’t deliberately avoided immersing myself in the semantics of law (honest) but, having moved into business development, social media and people development, I haven’t had to torture myself trying to understand the nuances of one word over another (the competing rights conundrum…).

Being super competitive, I must admit that there were occasions where I would argue Black was White – heck I was being paid to do this! Nowadays I am trying to see the win win opportunity, which is not embedded in the DNA of most lawyers.

Notwithstanding this, I have kept a close watch on the way in which firms are preparing for 6 October 2011 – a “red-letter day” according to the SRA.

At this point I am reminded of one of Tom Peters‘ recent quotes “So much to do and so little time to do it”. I wonder how many boards or managing partners have a sense of anxiousness over D-Day? Please don’t underestimate the significance of the date. If you haven’t got a battle plan prepared then you are failing in your fiduciary obligations.

If you have been reading my blog, you will understand my obsession (*shout it* from the roof-top style) with service delivery. And I don’t mean any old service. I mean the sort of service that stretches every fibre of your being. One that leaves you feeling exhausted and your clients exhilarated. Trouble is you have so conditioned yourself to believing it is not possible you have stopped trying.

It stands to reason that service is the sine qua non of your practice and it should inform everything – yes I mean everything – you do. Service isn’t just an outward facing phenomenon but something that goes to the heart of the way you treat your staff, suppliers and third parties. Are you thoughtful in all your dealings? Do people perceive you as being fair, honest, trustworthy and striving for something other than the bottom line?

As an aside, why do firms make such a big thing of announcing their Profit per Equity partner (snooze)? Is this the most apposite message that you or the wider press need to be championing?

But bringing things back to the flat paper of the latest SRA guidance, I am struck by how little is made of WOW service delivery. Now you pedants out there will no doubt be hot on my tail and highlight all of the sections, sub-sections, and verbose commentary that deals with service per se and I will happily hear you out, but on first blush nothing jumps out and screams “We put our clients first in everything we do” or “Service EXCELLENCE is our mantra”.

Instead what you get is this:

“5. [solicitors and firms must] provide a proper standard of service to your clients”

“[agree] an appropriate level of service with the client”

“provide a proper standard of client care and of work”

“the service you provide to clients is competent, delivered in a timely manner and takes account of your clients’ needs and circumstances”.

Compare this to Zappos:

“1. Deliver WOW Through Service

At Zappos, anything worth doing is worth doing with WOW.

WOW is such a short, simple word, but it really encompasses a lot of things. To WOW, you must differentiate yourself, which means doing something a little unconventional and innovative. You must do something that’s above and beyond what’s expected. And whatever you do must have an emotional impact on the receiver. We are not an average company, our service is not average, and we don’t want our people to be average. We expect every employee to deliver WOW.

Whether internally with co-workers or externally with our customers and partners, delivering WOW results in word of mouth. Our philosophy at Zappos is to WOW with service and experience, not with anything that relates directly to monetary compensation (for example, we don’t offer blanket discounts or promotions to customers).

We seek to WOW our customers, our co-workers, our vendors, our partners, and in the long run, our investors.”

Now you will say that this is non-industry specific, law is much more serious than selling shoes (which is principally what Zappos do) and of course these are just a minimum requirement and there is nothing to stop us adopting any manner of service promise as long as it fulfils the 10 Principles enunciated by the SRA. And I wouldn’t disagree with any of these. My gripe though is this: WHY SET THE BAR SO LOW?

None of the expressions quoted above suggest to me that a solicitor or firm is being asked to go beyond the minimum that any client would expect. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is arse covering but it doesn’t leave me with the impression that firms are being asked to deliver a service that is anything other than average.

My advice to law firms is to plainly set out what the SRA requires (perhaps with your take on things) and to say what you are doing that measures up to this. One thing that does impress me about the draft SRA handbook is that there does seem to be an equal focus on what each side should expect in the relationship. It doesn’t quite go far enough when enunciating the ability to choose or deselect clients but it should enable firms to be a bit more robust about the sort of work they want to take on (if they have a true desire to focus on the right sort of clients), if the client dovetails with their values and being able to ditch a client for non payment of their bills. On this latter point, it seems to be, without wishing to get drawn into a discussion about the ability to terminate a retainer for cause, that, if your client is going to demand a high service standard, equally they should expect to meet the letter of the law when it comes to your terms, particularly as regards your fees. The firms I worked for were far too soft on this issue for fear of facing a counterclaim for negligence. I appreciate it is a difficult balancing act, but for goodness sake don’t put yourself in a position where the client stands on their rights and you feel the only way to appease the situation is to automatically slash your costs. Have more faith in your lawyers.


Go rip it up.

Seriously, don’t allow yourself to write into your website a series of valedictory statements that bear no meaning to what you say or do you to your clients. Challenge yourself to WOW your clients. At the end of the day, there can be no complaint if you have breathed EXCELLENCE into your service delivery. It goes well beyond – in fact a million miles – “proper” service. That sounds too weak and half-baked.

If you must appoint your Wizard of WOW or a maestro of service. Anything that shows you mean business.

Stop fussing and obsessing about cost. I know from my own experience the amount of unnecessary time a complaint takes up. It usually revolves around cost or service. If you can get these sorted once and for all then a person’s salary will be fraction of the cost in lost time dealing with all this nonsense. And yes I know you have a compliance person but even the terminology leaves me feeling cold. It feels like having a inspector not a deliverer. They are coming along behind you making things awkward whereas you should be joined at the hip to make sure you are don’t screw up.

If you think you are being asked to do too much then tell me but I would wager that most of you will keep quiet and not want to do anything more than you have to. If you want to prove me wrong then it would my pleasure to use your firm as a case study for a future blog or podcast.

~ Julian Summerhayes ~





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