May 2007

With thanks to Dan Hull’s What About Clients for bringing this my attention (here is the post), those interested in client service should spend time thinking about "Insight #1" on Leo Bottary’s Client Service Insights.  Appearing right on the top banner, it states "Client service excellence isn’t about doing what no one else can do; it’s about doing what anyone can do, but just doesn’t." 

There is no silver bullet.  There is no magic pill.  There is no unique idea that will set you apart from everyone else–or if there is, the uniqueness will last only until others discover your idea and copy it.  But like everything else of value, execution is everything.  I’ve written about this before–here and here–but the point is so important that I don’t hesitate to write about it again.  Focus and a willingness to work harder at the basics of client service will differentiate you from the majority who just can’t be bothered or refuse to make the kind of commitment needed to really execute.

The simple fact is that client service really is about culture.  Dan Hull’s firm has created rules and lives by them.  Those who don’t live by them don’t stay.  There are a few other firms who make the institutional commitment, but far too few.  Instead, we have those who talk the talk and at many firms we find some islands of service amidst oceans of apathy. 

If you care, break a sweat.

Mike Dillon is the General Counsel Counsel of Sun Microsystems.  He also blogs at The Legal Thing.  Because he is an inhouse lawyer, I want to know what he thinks, so I am a regular reader of his blog.  His post from Tuesday captured my attention.  The Way Of The Mastadon reflects Mike’s views on the future of BigLaw–giant law firms trying to match their clients in size.  It is a must read.

Mike defines the real role of large firms:

My view is that law firms serve primarily as aggregators of specialized legal expertise. The premise has been that by combining multiple legal disciplines you can provide “one stop shopping” for current and prospective clients. This structure previously made sense. If you were an individual or business with a legal problem, it wasn’t efficient nor effective to try to identify an individual attorney with the technical skills that you required. So, you would turn to a law firm and rely on them to direct you to the appropriate attorney within their firm to solve your issue.

Mike then identifies the core problem:

The problem is that this model relies on growth (the need to add additional attorneys) to maintain profitability rather than focusing on efficiency gains. In this respect, it is at odds with what I need as a client and General Counsel.

 

After discussing the ease of moving the “aggregation” function inhouse, Mike reaches this conclusion:

My point is that the epoch of the current law firm model – which derives its profitability from growing scale and raising hourly rates – will soon be over. The firms that will survive and thrive are those that recognize this change and focus on how to maintain margins by focusing on efficiency.

 

Oh how I hope you are right.  The movement seems slow, but at least there is movement.

Great story on Monday’s All Things Considered on NPR about the ramifications of poor customer service.  The key is that customers who have a negative experience are more likely to talk about it, and are likely to embellish it.  The story is based on a study by the Wharton School of Business.  The critical conclusion–those who hear negative word of mouth are not likely to buy the from the seller who is the subject of the critical story.  Go here to listen to the story–its worth the short time it takes. 

From Guy Kawasaki and his wonder How to Change the World comes "Airline Boarding Pass Kiosk," a great example of someone thinking like a customer and then implementing the needed changes:

The ability to print boarding passes for flights is a great convenience. Unfortunately, half the time you’re in a hotel room when you check-in online and can’t print the boarding pass.  Some airlines (Northwest for one, but I always fly United) will fax the boarding pass to you—but this still requires that you get the fax. Unfortunately, lots of things can happen between the hotel fax and your room—for example, the business center is closed until after you depart.  The Hyatt Regency hotel at McCormick Place in Chicago, Illinois has a very helpful solution to this problem: an airline board pass printing kiosk. It’s very helpful and shows that someone was thinking about the customer. I hope that the person who thought of the kiosk sees this blog posting.

No, law firms should not create board pass kiosks to "keep up with the Jones."  But they should search out people like the originator of this idea and ask them to look at the law firm experience through the eyes of the law firm’s customers.

 

During a conference several months ago, I found myself doodling.  Pretty soon, the doodle turned into a note to myself.  "Who is the voice of the client?"  I put the note on my desk, and I find myself staring at every day.  In a law firm, who is the voice of the client?  Is the answer as simple as "I am?"  It can’t be.  No lawyer can speak for the client day in and day out.  There are days when I am tired.  Distracted.  Not in the office.  There are many reasons why any one lawyer cannot be the sole voice of the client in a law firm.

Is the answer, then, that all lawyers must be the voice of the client?  I think not.  Too many lawyers, particularly younger ones, are looking out for their own careers.  Bill more hours and do better work and make partner, or speak for the client and risk the golden ring.

As I stare at my doodled note, I’ve come to the conclusion that we cannot rely on ourselves to speak our clients in a law firm environment.  The answer, it seems, lies in systems, not solely in people.  Law firms must design systems so that the client’s interests, the client’s voice, are spoken–loudly–internally as the firm conducts its business.

To be clear, I believe that the answer to the title question is not just systems, but that systems must supplement those individuals who truly are committed to clients.  I welcome reaction to this conclusion.  But in any event, I will be writing more later about the kinds of systems I believe are necessary.

The Managing Partner of Morrison & Foerster, Keith Wetmore, is a fraternity brother.  Wettinger, as he was known at Northwestern in the the late 1970s, was a stellar President of the fraternity.  Because of our fraternal brotherhood, articles in which Keith is mentioned or quoted always catch my eye.  One gave me pause to think beyond the past, however.  Anyone following the profession knows starting salaries in major markets have climbed to $160,000.  Given the upward ripple, the bottom line hit for firms of any size is measured in the millions.  And I have written repeatedly that clients will pay the price for the increase, either in higher hourly rates or the sudden and mysterious need to spend more hours on the same matters.

So check this New York Lawyer article out (sub. req.).  In it, my friend Keith takes on the "who pays" issue directly.  From the article:

Morrison & Foerster Chairman Keith Wetmore said the costs of the $160,000 scale will be born internally — even if it comes from partners’ profits.

"We will make a little less money this year," Wetmore said.

He also said his firm won’t hike hours requirements or billing rates.

Its not that I don’t believe Keith.  Its just that I can’t fathom how he can pull it off–at least over the long run.  Given the pressures to report high earnings per partner for competitive reasons, the need to pay marketable partners at the market rate, and similar pressures, how can a partnership put itself in the position where it starts off several million dollars in the whole vis its competitors?  It wasn’t as though Keith was infallible as President of the fraternity.  Maybe he just got it wrong here.  But if he can pull it off, more power to him.  I’ll be watching–along with MoFo’s clients.

Tom Collins at morepartnerincome has a most interesting post on telephones and the use of voicemail.  Tom’s post picks up on an article by Dan Pinnington in Law Practice.  Tom picks up on this advice from Pinnington:

  1. Open with your name and title so the caller is sure they reached the correct mail box.

  2. Update the message daily to include details of your schedule.

  3. Indicate whether you’ll be checking voice mail or when you will be back in the office.

  4. Always give the caller an option to transfer to a live person.

  5. Encourage the caller to leave a detailed message.

  6. Let the caller know when they can expect their call to be returned—after noon today, within 24 hours by the next day, etc.

I have to take issue with some of this advice.  I never include details of my schedule.  Clients are not concerned with your work for others–they want you to do your work for them.  If I said "I’m in a meeting today", some would not stay on the line long enough to hear that I would check messages hourly.  Or they might think their issue is not as important as my meeting, trial, etc.  Same rationale goes for saying when you’ll check voicemail.  If I am not able to check my voicemail several times an hour, my secretary is monitoring my voicemail and will let me know by email to my blackberry that a client has called.  Lastly, I do not believe in announcing when calls will be returned because the time is different depending on who you are.  Client calls are returned within minutes if possible.  Vendor calls or calls from opposing counsel might be longer.  Reporter calls also are returned immediately if at all possible.  But cold calls from guys selling their favorite stocks are never returned, so I won’t create an expectation that I will get back to them.

The last issue is the most important–do you have calls received during business hours go automatically into voicemail or do you have your assistant screen calls and give the caller the opportunity to leave a message or not?  Personal preferences on this issue differ.  Here’s why I have my assistant screen my calls:  If the call is from a client or a prospect, my assistant will email me so I can respond immediately (unless I am in court in which case she determines whether a call at the end of the trial day is adequate or whether someone else can handle the call).  But one thing we have found is that my assistant is able to answer a fair number of the incoming questions or provide the information the client is seeking.  She not only saves me time but incurs a lot of goodwill by getting clients the information they need on the spot.

The bottom line is not a right vs wrong answer but rather this–make sure your methods of handling incoming calls are well thought out rather than an after-thought.

With thanks to Matt Homann (the [non]billable hour) for the link, think about this information from William Glasser:

How We Learn

10% of what we READ

20% of what we HEAR

30% of what we SEE

50% of what we SEE and HEAR

70% of what is DISCUSSED with OTHERS

80% of what is EXPERIENCED PERSONALLY

95% of what we TEACH TO SOMEONE ELSE

William Glasser

Every trial lawyer knows this–that’s why we try to show exhibits to a jury and have key parts read to them.  That’s why we try to make our examination of witnesses seem like a discussion, albeit one where not all parties are using their voice.

But all of this begs the question, why do we limit ourselves in the way we communicate with our clients.  Most of us use email (which replaced letters and memos).  Even assuming that our clients learn more than the statistics from Mr. Glasser, wouldn’t we be more effective if we used visuals and in-person dialogue?  How many of us shy away from the latter?

So I am flying to Houston, quietly reading the April/May issue of Law Practice magazine (see my next post).  I stop at ‘FrontLines" to examine their survey.  The question–How do law firms arrive at their partner compensation decisions?–is pulled from an Altman Weil survey.  I just started laughing.  On a 4 point scale, with 1 being no importance and 4 being very important, personal fees collected and business origination (new clients) get the top marks of 2.5 each, with business origination (increase in volume) and business origination (new business/existing clients) arriving just behind at 2.25 (2 is of little importance and 3 is somewhat important).  Years in practice is ranked less than 1.  Hours recorded (apparently distinguished from hours actually worked) receives a rank of less than 2–less than "little importance."   Yeah, right.

Judging from the survey, there are no factors that are very important or even somewhat important.  Strikes me that the survey respondents were delusional.

I was paging through April/May volume of the Law Practice, and came across an ad for The Successful Lawyer, authored by my good friend, Gerry Riskin.  (Gerry’s blog Amazing Firms Amazing Practices is a must read.)  Its no secret that I am a huge Gerry Riskin fan, but I did want to pass along a comment about this book–it really is a must read, not just for partners, but for associates too.  Gerry’s writing is so clear and compelling that those looking for a map to success in law and life should put this on the top of their reading list.  But don’t take it from me.  Tom Peters, another icon, says this:

The Successful Lawyer is precisely the book I’ve been dreaming of.  It is well argued and exceptionally practical.  Frankly, there is no professional service firm, including my own, that would not benefit immeasurably from applying these ideas and practices.

Make a deal with yourself.  Buy the Audio-CD version, download it into your Ipod and exercise your mind while you exercise your body.  It will be a great investment.