It’s Resolution Time At Counsel Table

As my wife will attest, I’m distrustful of resolutions, whether they’re made at New Year’s or some other momentous occasion, like discharge from rehab. But I’m going to take this New Year’s Day to make a resolution relating to client service: In 2014, I’m going to try very, very hard to change the way my clients think about lawyers.

This is not at all original. In fact, this is one of J. Dan Hull’s notorious “World Famous Bad-Ass, Annoying and Infuriatingly Correct 12 Rules of Customer Service.” Here’s what Dan says about this rule:

“This rule, like Rule One, is not so intuitive. But it’s the most challenging. The “under-promise but over-deliver” and “exceed customer expectations” notion of keeping good clients is a great idea. But I just don’t think it works that well for lawyers. I think that clients, rightly or wrongly, and whether or not they are even aware of it, in fact have low expectations of lawyers in the first place. For two reasons:

A. Traditional Pervasive Distrust of Lawyers (General–Deserved & Undeserved)

There is a pervasive (let’s face it, ancient) cynicism and suspicion about lawyers which even our most loyal and valued clients carry around with them. Some of it is unavoidable and not our fault. It’s based on everything from literature, TV, movies and lawyer jokes to a genuine misunderstanding of what lawyers must do to perform well. It’s deeply rooted in world culture.

B. Real Experiences-Based Distrust of Lawyers (Specific–Deserved)

But most of the distrust is our fault because either (1) our substantive professional services are merely “adequate” and/or delivered without passion or real caring–clients can sense that–or (2) we view clients almost as adversaries (they joke about us; we joke about them), which gets communicated to clients in every step of our work for them. See The First Post.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Why ‘try to exceed expectations’ when the overall lawyer standard is perceived as low to mediocre? If your clients are all Fortune 500 stand-outs, and the GCs’ seems to love you and your firm, is that because your service delivery is so good–or because other lawyers they use are so ‘bad’ on service? Why have a low standard, or one that merely makes you look incrementally more responsive and on top of things than the boutique on the next floor up? Why not overhaul and re-create the whole game?

If you read the better writers on services, like Harry Beckwith in Selling The Invisible, you pick up on this simple idea: Rather than ‘under-promise/over-deliver’, which is essentially job specific, why not change the way people think of lawyers generally and what they can expect from them generally? Get good clients–those clients you like and want–to keep coming back to you by communicating in all aspects of your work that you care deeply about your lawyering for them, you want to serve their interests on an ongoing basis and that it’s a privilege to be their lawyer. Show them you fit no lawyer mold.

Oh, yeah. One catch–and the hardest part: it’s got to be true.”

So how do I plan to execute? After all, a resolution without a plan is just an empty promise to oneself. I’m going to work on three core areas that tend to fuel a lot of client disappointment in their lawyers.

1. Communication. I’m going to work hard to improve my communication habits and practices. This includes a resolution to respond to any email or phone call from a client the same day. I’m going to report more, and more often, what’s going on in our case. (Yes, it’s our case. We’re in it together.)

2. Transparency. I’m going to strive to better involve clients in strategy development. Of course there are all kinds of clients, and some would prefer not to be involved; others want to plan every move. But those who want to participate will have the opportunity.

3. Value. Clients often hate to involve lawyers because they assume we are out to financially “gouge” them. I’m going to turn this on its head. I resolve to bring more value-in-advance. I will think of at least one way to save my client money at every step in any litigation. I will work harder to keep clients aware of major changes in California employment law–for free!

There. Now pass the champagne.

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5 Secrets to Gaining Client Trust: #3 Bill Thoughtfully and Fairly

Many of us give little thought to invoices we send to our clients.  Invoices are utilitarian and serve an important purpose, at least in a for-profit law practice.  Beyond being a routine request to be compensated for work performed, however, we tend not to give invoices much serious thought.  This can be a mistake.

We should expect that clients will examine with a critical eye everything they receive from their lawyer, whether it is an email, a copy of some work product, or a periodic invoice.  They may look for different things.  For example, a sophisticated General Counsel expects to see high quality legal analysis and skilled advocacy, while less experienced clients may limit their evaluation to whether what they receive looks professional and is free of grammatical or typographical errors.  But every time we transmit written material to a client we invite critical scrutiny of our skills and professionalism.  It is unavoidable.

With this in mind, we should begin to view our invoices, not as a purely utilitarian demand for payment, but as a kind of brochure advertising the quality of our services.  Changes in the way we present our request to be paid can enhance our clients’ trust, not only in our abilities as professional advocates, but also in the fulfillment of our ethical obligation as fiduciaries.

I can think of two billing habits that, if done thoughtfully and consistently, should enhance client trust.  The first coincides with most clients’ chief concern, second only to quality of representation: how much we actually charge.  Similar to my earlier “secret” #1 (Be Honest), it is no secret that, just as we owe clients a duty of candor, we only bill for work we perform at a rate that is reasonable.  That is obvious.  That is Ethics 101, right?

Billing that enhances client trust—the “secret” that is the subject of this post—goes beyond Ethics 101 and enters the more nebulous realm of added value.  I’m not a legal services pricing specialist (a vocation the ABA Journal predicts will soon be a BigLaw fixture), and I try not to over think this stuff.  Instead, I try to follow this golden rule: put myself in the shoes of a client reading my invoice and ask what would I be comfortable seeing and paying if it were me?

There is one absolute truism that seems to resonate with just about any client that is not a Fortune 1000 or larger company: they hate, hate, hate to be charged for telephone calls between the lawyer and the client.  Particularly irritating are billing entries for such telephone calls that last 18 minutes (i.e., .3) or less.  Only clients who work for giant companies that are basically in the business of being sued (i.e., insurance companies, large California employers) can stomach seeing this on an invoice.  Everyone else likes to think they can pick up the phone and ask their lawyer a question—or just shoot the shit—without seeing a $100 (or more) charge for it.  I get this.  However many times we might tell a client “I don’t have anything to sell other than my time,” it is guaranteed to rankle most clients when they are charged for a short phone call with their lawyer.  Sorry.

Now.  Don’t squander an opportunity here.  While I would reduce (or eliminate) the instances you actually bill clients for short phone calls with them, I would continue to ALWAYS record such calls on the invoice, just mark them “no charge,” or something similar.  This engenders trust.  It says to the client, “I am committed to you, I know you want to talk to me without seeing a bill for it and I am willing to go that extra mile for you!”

The second billing habit that can lead to greater client trust relates to how we describe the work we perform.  Just like Tupperware parties, three martini lunches and hiring of first year associates, the days of the simple “For Services Rendered” billing entry are long gone.  But I would argue it’s not enough just to describe a task.  For billing entries to contribute to building client trust, they should not only describe the task but briefly explain, in crisp, clear terms, why the task was necessary.  I think this is particularly important when the task was somehow occasioned by the opposition.  For example, don’t write “Telephone conference with opposing counsel re discovery,” when an equally honest entry would be “Telephone conference with opposing counsel re their request for additional time to respond to pending discovery.”

I also eschew legalese when drafting billing entries for nonlawyer clients.  This sends the message: “I want you to understand what you’re paying for.  I’m not trying to trick you with fancy legal talk.”  Again, this is calculated to gain trust.

I recognize these “secrets” are not brain surgery, or even secret.  But they were things it took me some time to figure out and I hope you find them helpful to your practice.

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