March 2006

The Greatest American Lawyer has an interesting post–Lawyers Need to Get Their Priorities Straight–that is worth reading.  The post draws on GAL’s new practice of having a routing sheet attached to paper that comes in the office that sets a priority for the paper.  GAL explains:

When documents arrive at our office by mail, fax or otherwise, a document routing cover sheet gets attached. That document routing cover sheet indicates everything that needs to happen to that document. This sheet identifies where the document is going to be filed on our file server. It indicates everyone the document needs to be transmitted to and how the document is transmitted either by email, leap file, mail, and fax or otherwise. All the calendaring gets Identified and due dates marked on the routing sheet. There are spots and check boxes for uploading the information into the extranet etc.

But the most important part of the routing sheet from my point of view is the priority, 1-4. My secretary attaches a routing sheet filling in the information which is within her control. She routes the paper based on her priority belief to my office. There is a spot for priority 1, priority 2, priority 3 and priority 4 items. I review the documents and reprioritize as necessary (seldom needed). I then fill in the rest of the information on the routing sheet and send it back to my staff, again on a priority bases.

Every piece of paper gets treated as quickly as the priority dictates. Those items which are priority 1 (Urgent) move through the office swiftly and almost always within a couple of hours. Level 2 priority items are next and typically move through the office the same day or within 24 hours. Category 3 priority items are taken care of as soon as the top two top priorities are taken care of.

Sure seems like a thoughtful way to reduce mistakes and make sure work is handled at the least expensive level.

Its hard to be in a service business and not focus considerable attention on the art of listening.  It is, after all, the gateway to your client’s soul, and when you are able to communicate at that level, you’ve gone a long way toward becoming your client’s trusted advisor.  See earlier posts here and here.  But there is a big difference between knowing that you should listen and knowing how to do so effectively.  How do you train someone to make great art?

Those interested in improving this critical skill must read Arnie Herz‘s blog, legal sanity.  Arnie has a great post–“client relations 101: active listening and the art of conversation“–that discusses listening in general, and the concept of active listening in particular.  Among Arnie’s suggestions:

 1) Listen 50% more
2) Ask twice as many questions
3) Hold eye contact 50% more
4) Make slight contact, or hold contact slightly longer
5) Show sincere sympathy or enthusiasm for something they say
6) Ask them if there is anything you could help out with

Bravo Arnie.  Great post.  Many thanks to Gerry Riskin for highlighting Arnie’s post in his amazing blog, Amazing Firms, Amazing Practices.

Many fellow bloggers have followed up on the story in the New York Times that women represent only 17% of the partners in the nation’s major firms.  I ended up posting a comment to Monica Bay’s take on this story.  I would love to see the statistics because I suspect that what they show is that the 17% share is skewed toward the bottom of the partnership pool.  When it comes to statistics, firms have demonstrated phenomenal creativity to color the story.  Wanna bet some count income, non-equity partners in this mix, but of course wouldn’t dream of doing so when calculating profits per partner

Monica ends her post by saying “duh!  We’ll keep on hammering and hammering.”  I might ask why?  I left a big firm rather than try to beat them at their game, and I am much happier for doing so.  There are enough women controlling enough business that starting new firms should be the norm for those stars whose talent is ignored or taken for granted.  

The March 27, 2006 issue of U.S. News & World Report contains a disturbing article on “The Fight For The Future: What America Must Do To Keep Up With Roaring Economies Like Those Of China, India, and South Korea.”  Why disturbing?  Let me refer to some statistics cited:

  • $194 billion spent by US companies on R&D.  $205 billion spent by US companies on tort litigation.
  • 9-Rank of American eighth graders in science proficiency among 45 countries.  15-Rank of American eighth graders in math proficiency among 45 countries.
  • 56–percentage of engineering Ph.D.’s awarded in the US that go to foreign-born students
  • 6–number of the world’s Top 25 information-technology companies based in US.  14–number of the world’s Top 25 information-technology companies based in Asia.
  • $33 billion–1990 US trade balance in high-tech manufactured goods.  -$24 billion–2004 US trade balance in high-tech manufactured goods.

I see these statistics and I think back to how “The Greatest Generation” responded when America was challenged.  US News writes:

For all the talk about what to do–which is likely to get louder in the years ahead–it may simply take a national dose of humility before America musters its famed resolve and strives once again for global leadership.

Unfortunately, the problems that lead to this statistics are ones that took years to create and will take decades to change.  Can America muster that kind of resolve for that length of time? 

You might be asking what this has to do with client service.  Let me respond with two questions:  Do you have the resolve it takes to provide great client service over an extended period of time?  Clients, do you have the resolve to get great client service over an extended period of time?  The challenges are dissimilar, but the character required to address them is not.


Golden  Michelle Golden posted on what I call the GC BS barometer.  She actually called her post “GC Sense That Building Relationships’ Is A Euphemism For ‘Give Us More Work.’“  From Michelle’s post:

Little wonder that in law, for example, increasing numbers of General Counsel sense that when your firm talks about “building relationships” it becomes nothing more than a euphemism for “give us more work,” while “providing added value” becomes interpreted to mean, “at higher rates!”

Let me begin with this premise.  One does not become the General Counsel of a business without being smart.  Book smart, sure.  But more so, street smart.  Savvy.  Good at reading people.  Knowing the smell of BS when the aroma is disguised with sweet perfume.

With that premise, one has to wonder whether lawyers preaching “added value” and “partnering” and “relationship building” are ready to acknowledge that these tools are used because they provide–at least they should provide–reciprocal benefits.  These are tools that law firms can use to build stronger relationships, which, over time, provide enormous benefits to the firm.  Those benefits should be known and acknowledged.  But the words themselves provide no inherent value to the client.  That, too, needs to be acknowledged.  In order to avoid triggering the BS barometer, it is essential that clients be shown exactly what benefits they receive from the promise of a “better relationship.” 

There are, to be sure, great benefits that law firms can provide as part of an effort to build stronger relationships with clients.  The key to avoiding the problem identified in Michelle’s post is to be specific and view the offering from the GC’s perspective first and foremost.  Because if you can’t get past the BS barometer, there will be no benefits for the firm.

By the way, this exquisitely honed barometer is precisely why, in my view at least, there should be nothing remotely resembling selling that takes place during a client satisfaction survey.

Over the past several months, Jim Hassett, Dan Hull, Michelle Golden, Tom Kane, Tom Collins (via guest blogger Jim Remsen) and I (and if I have left out anyone involved in the dialogue, my profound apologies) have been having an on-going dialogue about client satisfaction surveys. Good summary posts are here and here.
Jim Hassett then advanced the ball even further with a provacative post “Should You Sell During Client Satisfaction Reviews.” Jim quoted Womble Carlyle’s Director of Sales, Steve Bell:

“At a client service review,the lawyer and his/her client are supposed to dig in and candidly discuss what’s going on at the company. It’s a chance for the client to wax eloquent about problems and dreams… At least to this salesman, for a lawyer to uncover problems (or opportunities) and not to provide a solution (yes, even one that the lawyer himself can address for a fee), is the equivalent of a doctor knowing that you have heart palpitations and not doing anything about it….When a client talks about problems (or opportunities), he/she wants advice and suggestions from a lawyer every bit as much as a patient does from a doctor.”

This led to some further comment by Michelle Golden (here and here)and Dan Hull (here). Jim Hassett then provided input from the inestimable Gerry Riskin (here). Gerry’s take is this:

I believe that both Steven and I view the primary purpose of a client visit as an opportunity to ensure that there is a high level of client satisfaction and to reduce the probability that the client might migrate to a different law firm. This is achieved through listening and learning. Few lawyers understand their clients’ businesses or industries as well as the clients would like and we agree that this is a critical objective for the visit. It follows that this is a key ingredient of the training of lawyers require to make such visits.
The delicate question is this: What is the appropriate reaction in a client visitation when it becomes obvious that there is a legal need that your firm is not currently fulfilling. My view is that the primary purpose of the visit must not be abandoned (or appear to be abandoned). At the same time I agree completely with Steven Bell that the doctor must help the patient. I don’t believe that Steven is advocating throwing the patient onto the gurney and tossing our note pads into the trash. I used the word “delicate” because there is some judgment to be exercised here.

Tom Kane then followed with an insightful post (here). Tom offered his thoughts on whether you can sell during a client satisfaction meeting:

In my mind, you can’t ask a law firm client for feedback on “how the firm/attorneys are doing?” and “what can we do better?”, while at the same meeting and in the next breath say, “oh, by the way, can we also take on your employment litigation cases.”

Although this is unlikely to be the final word on this topic, my take from the long and terrific exchange on this topic is this: A lawyer or law firm gains from every face to face meeting with the client, and those meetings should be as frequent as possible. Most of those meetings should be directed to providing service or exploring needs that the client has. The client satisfaction meeting, however, is critical and must be treated as distinct, both in form and in substance. It is a chance for the spotlight to be shifted from the client to the firm, and for the client to provide insights that the firm should desperately want to hear about how it can render service in a way that makes the client happier, more satisfied and more committed to the firm. This keeps the client satisfaction meetings separate in the critical spot they deserve.

Last July, I posted a comment about negative referrals, using a personal experience. Because negative comments can be so devastating, I wanted to draw your attention to a great post by Larry Bodine.
bodine.jpg Larry’s post “Ain’t Nothin’ Worse Than Bad Word Of Mouth” relates several key findings from a study by the Verde Group, Consumer Contact, and the Baker Retailing Initiative at Wharton. Its a strong post with several compelling lessons, and I urge you to read it.

In a private email congratulating me on the new appearance of ISOPCS, The Wired GC kindly sent me a picture to remind me of the juxtaposition between the idlyllic picture above and what we are if lose sight of the importance of client service.
Thanks for reminding us to keep our eye on the ball, John.

In late January, I was one of several bloggers posting about who should be conducting client surveys and whether the surveys should be a disguised or blantant selling vehicle. Check this post for background. Jim Hassett continues this dialogue today with his post at Law Firm Business Development.
Its a very interesting post. The Director of Sales at Wombyle Carlyle takes issue with the notion that selling should not be a part of a client service survey. Jim quotes him:

“At a client service review, the lawyer and his/her client are supposed to dig in and candidly discuss what’s going on at the company. It’s a chance for the client to wax eloquent about problems and dreams… At least to this salesman, for a lawyer to uncover problems (or opportunities) and not to provide a solution (yes, even one that the lawyer himself can address for a fee), is the equivalent of a doctor knowing that you have heart palpitations and not doing anything about it….When a client talks about problems (or opportunities), he/she wants advice and suggestions from a lawyer every bit as much as a patient does from a doctor.”

I beg to differ, and strongly. Maybe it is a matter of semantics, but there is a difference between a doctor knowing you have heart palpitations and fixing the problem with a prescription and a doctor listening to your symptoms and ordering a battery of tests to figure out what ails the patient. The latter requires investigation, analysis and listening. There is a difference between hearing what the law firm can do to improve the work it is currently doing and whether there is more work to handle. I’ve done north of twenty client service interviews. I know clients are savvy enough to distinguish between a discussion about how you can serve them better and how you can serve them more.