The COVID-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented upheaval for how lawyers deliver their services to clients. As lawyers adapt, it’s more important than ever to design our practice around client-centered principles. In this post, I’m sharing one example of how I use a client-centered approach to designing my law practice.
What Is a Client-Centered Practice?
Basically, being client-centered means putting your clients, as opposed to yourself, at the center of your practice. Rather than making decisions based on what’s best, or easiest, or cheapest for you, you do what will provide your clients with the best experience or most value.
According to Jack Newton, author of the book “The Client-Centered Law Firm: How to Succeed in an Experience-Driven World,” building a client-centered law practice requires you to consider both your client’s journey and your client’s experience. Lawyerist breaks the client journey into five stages: awareness, consideration, hiring, engagement and retention. Client experience is the “sum of all interactions with your law firm, from website to the last consultation.”
Isn’t That Just Good Client Service?
Though they are related, client experience differs from client service in that client service is typically reactive while client experience is proactive. How your firm deals with a client who calls to complain is an example of your firm’s client service. By contrast, setting up a comprehensive FAQ page to preempt client complaints is a client-centered practice that will improve your client experience.
One Example of How I’m Improving the Client Experience
My goal is for my clients to think of my firm as a breath of fresh air in the smog of other professional service providers. I’m thinking about all the time they’ve spent waiting around in doctor’s offices way past their appointment times, getting upsold at the dentist, or filling out endless forms before actually talking to anyone. I want my clients to tell everyone how convenient, easy and painless it was to work with me.
I’m an estate planning attorney in Manhattan Beach, Calif., in Los Angeles County. The shutdown has forced me to rethink the procedures I use to have my clients’ estate plans signed and notarized. These plans contain about a dozen individual documents, total around 100 pages, and can require about two dozen notarized signatures. In other words, there are quite a few moving parts.
Many of my clients are dual-earner, married couples with kids. Geographically, they’re spread all over Los Angeles, which, as you may have heard, has a bit of traffic. Before the crisis hit, to get both clients to my office would, realistically, require them to take a half-day off work. So, asking them to come in solely to sign their estate plan would not be a very client-centered request.
Instead, before the shutdown, I decided to use mobile notaries (think real estate signings) to do the job. (Quick aside: You may be wondering about digital notarization services like Notarize.com. While California doesn’t authorize remote notarizations by California notaries, it does, like many other states, honor lawfully conducted out-of-state notarizations. The issue for me, however, is that California requires two in-person witnesses for a will signing. So, I wouldn’t be able to complete the entire estate-plan signing using an online notary.)
Of course, with a lockdown order in place, coming in for signing has not been feasible. But even as restrictions begin to ease, I don’t foresee many in-person signings. As I mentioned, most of my clients have kids. Many schools and daycares are still closed, and both parents need to be present for the signing. I suspect that most will still prefer to do the signing at home.
OK, so far, so good. But now, by taking myself out of the equation, I’ve made the signing more difficult because I won’t be there to supervise. To address that, I created a very specific set of instructions that includes a checklist to ensure that no signatures are left out. I provide the instructions to both the clients and the notary.
Rather than just using binder clips, I assemble the plan documents into a tabbed binder. The tab locations for each document are included on the checklist. That speeds up the signing and ensures that documents won’t be misplaced or mixed up.
The final piece of the puzzle is getting the binder to the clients before the signing and then back to me once it’s complete. I use Priority Mail from the U.S. Postal Service. Given the rise of Amazon, my feeling is that most people are accustomed to receiving important packages by mail and, likewise, aren’t put off by having to mail a package back to me.
But, I still want to remove as much friction from the return process as possible. So, I use pre-printed adhesive return labels, and I provide instructions for scheduling a pickup in case my clients want to avoid a trip to the post office. In fact, I’ve begun including precut packing tape strips in case my clients don’t have any at home.
Packing Tape? Really?
You might be asking yourself why a lawyer is spending his time thinking about packing tape. I chose this example because becoming a client-centered law firm typically doesn’t have much to do with the legal side of your practice. Instead, you’ll have to focus on all the little details that most lawyers simply ignore. But it’s those details that will set your firm apart from the pack.
Use Client-Centered Design to Stand Out
The pandemic has radically altered our day-to-day lives, personally and professionally. We’re also staring down the biggest economic shock in at least a decade. While demand for some legal services will rise, it’s safe to say that, overall, fewer potential clients will be seeking legal services and competition for clients will increase.
Given these factors, how willing do you think potential clients will be to overcome unnecessary obstacles in your practice — or put up with bad or indifferent service?
Now is the time. If you haven’t already, begin implementing client-centered design in your practice.
If you have an example of how you’ve implemented a client-centered approach in your firm, please email the editors at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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