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Struggle for Work-Life Balance, Part 7

Providing Better Legal Services Isn’t Always About the Law

Guidance on building trust and preventing a "failure of relationship."

By Dustin Cole

In “Why Lawyers Really Struggle for Work-Life Balance,” I listed six steps to building a practice that runs smoothly and allows you to have a life: 1) acquire better management skills; 2) implement better technology; 3) create and install better systems and procedures; 4) develop better teams; 5) build better market focus; and 6) deliver better legal services.

In this post, we’ll discuss the last step, delivering better legal services. First, notice I didn’t say “being a better lawyer.” That’s not what I mean.

Most prospects don’t really know how to evaluate your skills as a lawyer. They only know what a friend told them about you, or what you said about yourself on your website or in an ad. And at the end of their initial meeting with you, they will likely decide on a visceral level if they “liked you” or “felt good about you.”

In other words, their decision to hire you and trust you with their matter will be based on an emotional — and to a large degree unconscious — response to you.

Did You Earn the Client’s Trust?

The question to ask yourself is: After you have finished their matter, do clients feel as positive about you as they did at the beginning? Most often, that’s more a question of good client communications and service than of legal performance.

If you don’t figure out this part of your practice, you will always struggle because you will spend your time putting out fires, dealing with upset clients and answering bar complaints.

Consider this: Bar associations across the country consistently report that approximately 55 percent of all grievances relate to communications issues. The flip side is that between 70 to 80 percent of those grievances are dismissed as without merit. This is because the bar found those lawyers didn’t commit a sin — there was no malfeasance, no failure to apply the law, no legal incompetence. There was only a “failure of relationship” and a loss of trust.

Failure of Relationship Equals Failure of Reputation

To stretch a statistic, in one report 55 out of 100 clients who hired a lawyer were disappointed, or even angry enough to want revenge. How many more were unhappy — just not unhappy enough to file a grievance?

Most lawyers will say that the most important asset they own is their reputation. Yet every day, clients are saying they have lost faith in their lawyers. And, as the old saying goes, a happy client will tell three people. An unhappy client will tell 33 people. So every day, lawyers are losing a piece of their most valuable asset — their reputation.

How can you keep things running smoothly, guard your reputation and ensure that you create more “raving fans” and fewer “raving enemies”?

Focus on Every Touchpoint

My guiding principle is simple: Every time you touch a prospect, client or referral source, you are either increasing or decreasing their trust in you.

So what do I mean by “touches”?

  • The vetting process. Before they hire you, those touches begin with what others say about you, what they read on your website or in your advertising and, increasingly, what is said about you in online reviews.
  • First contact. Next, it’s about what happens when they call to make an appointment. Are they greeted warmly and professionally, and is their request handled positively? Or do they get a harried, cold or even unfriendly voice and grudging service? Do they get voicemail or one of those awful robot menus? The more difficult their first contact, the more likely they are to change their mind or arrive for their initial meeting with trepidation.
  • First meeting. When prospects or new clients arrive at your office, how are they greeted? Do they have to wait until someone notices they’re there? Is there a little sliding glass window like at the doctor’s office? Are the chairs comfortable? Are they offered refreshment? Is their appointment honored on time? Or do they wait, ignored, for 20 minutes or more, until someone comes out and says, “The attorney will be with you shortly.”

You get the picture. All these early contacts form impressions that set up that initial meeting for success or failure. Even if prospects with a less than positive impression do decide to hire you, they will tend to be more hesitant and questioning — and likely more difficult to work with. They will be looking for negatives — whether valid or not. And they will be more likely to file a grievance.

In Part 3 of this series, we discussed the importance of creating better systems and procedures for your practice so that work gets done efficiently. Creating systems that shore up your intake and client communications processes are critical to ensuring exceptional service — and maintaining trust.

A Different Kind of Trust Account

Throughout the relationship, you are making deposits to or withdrawals from your client’s emotional bank account. Consistent positive deposits pay off with trust and understanding when you have a difficult moment or something goes astray. Withdrawals create mistrust.

If you don’t start the relationship off positively, when something negative happens, it becomes a “see, I thought so” moment.

What Does Your Process Look Like?

One of the most interesting parts of my work is being a “secret shopper.” We enter the firm as a prospect, observing the entire initial contact and interview process. Let’s walk through a typical process.

  • You’re hired! So the prospect hires you. Do they leave the meeting with a good picture of what will happen next? Do they have an idea of how long the process might take, the possible costs, and who they will be working with besides you? Did they meet your team so they won’t get upset when they get a call from a stranger? I often say that if you don’t tell the client how things will go, they’ll make it up for themselves — and you’ll get to be wrong.
  • Now, the matter is underway. You’re copying the client on lots of paperwork. Does it make them fearful and baffled, or do you convey all those papers with sufficient information to support their trust instead of scaring them?
  • Next, it’s time to send a bill. Remember that your bills are a critical part of your communications. And, like all the other pieces, they create deposits or withdrawals from the client’s emotional bank account. The client wants to know two things: where are we with my case, and how much do I need to pay you? An endless list of “0.5, 3.2, 6.1” line items with cryptic explanations doesn’t communicate that. In fact, it too often raises questions and challenges. This is especially serious when you are slow to bill. The more time that elapses between, say, a phone call and the billing line item for it, the more likely the client is to query it. And every query (let’s call it what it is, a challenge to your integrity) is a withdrawal from their emotional bank account.

A Few Good Tips on Billing

I recommend sending each monthly bill with a cover letter that offers a brief summary of actions and progress on the case. In fact, you might consider replacing the itemized billing with a memo followed by a bill that simply summarizes the types of charges — attorney time, paralegal time, miscellaneous charges — and offers “detail on request.” If the summary informs them in a way that maintains their trust and allays their fears, you may never be asked for more detail.

One common mistake is the no-bill month. As in, “No reason to send a bill because nothing happened this month and there are no charges.” Wrong.

Remember, a bill is an important client communication. The client wants to know “where are we, and how much did it cost?” When there is no bill, clients get nervous and wonder if you forgot them. Also, you should never miss the opportunity to send the kind of bill clients love to get: the “no charge this month” bill.

Communicate With Every Client at Least Once a Month

For the sake of trust, you should make this a hard rule. Hopefully, this is a personal “touching base” phone call or email. But at least send that informative and positive bill.

Contingency firms are no exception. You may have hundreds of cases, but the client has only one. And they’re thinking about it constantly. If you’re not communicating regularly, they will start calling — challenging you — to find out “what the @#&% is going on with my case?”

Lack of communication puts the emotional bank account in the negative. Lawyers get sued by unhappy clients even when they got the client what they believe was a good settlement because the client lost trust in the lawyer.

Make Every Touch Count

The takeaway? Every time you touch a client or prospect, you are either increasing or decreasing their trust in you. Make sure you make every touch count — and make those touches frequent enough to keep those perceptions positive.

Catch Up on the “Struggle for Balance” Series

Successful lawyers learn new ways to operate their firms so they can keep building their practices while having (or recovering) a life. Here are previously covered steps to help you do just that:

  1. Acquire better management skills.
  2. Implement better technology.
  3. Create and install better systems and procedures.
  4. Develop better teams and delegate more work.
  5. Build better market focus.

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Dustin Cole Dustin Cole

Dustin Cole is President and Master Practice Advisor with Attorneys Master Class. For nearly 25 years, he has delivered CLE programs on practice management, marketing, risk management and succession planning for bar associations and organizations. He has keynoted and trained at nearly all of the nation’s solo and small firm programs, worked with more than 400 attorneys, and conducted operations and marketing analyses for more than 100 firms. Email him at dustin@attorneysmasterclass.com.

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