What’s the biggest predictor of a law firm’s success? Hint: It’s not the firm’s bottom line.
1. Clients are canaries. Research into seven failed professional services firms, four of which were law firms, indicates declining client satisfaction is an early predictor of a firm’s demise. Likening clients to “canaries that were used in coal mines to detect lethal gas,” an Australasian Lawyer article reporting on the research (conducted by Beaton Research+Consulting) relates that firms were too “internally focused” to notice clients were defecting or reducing workload. By the time firm leaders saw the problem, it was too late to save the firm. Maintaining good client service when market conditions turn bad is not easy, but author Henry Dahut says a strong brand identity and core values can help a firm stay the course — and stave off the kind of “voracious greed” episodes seen in recent firm failures.
2. Think like a client. Clients, of course, are very focused on their own bottom lines. Trevor Faure at Legal Week says firms should “embrace new ways of working to survive in a client-driven world” — one where sophisticated clients now separate their legal needs and price expectations into a “work hierarchy” of “cream,” bet-the-farm issues where cost is secondary; “core” less important, yet frequent issues that require predictable fees; and “commodity” high-volume, low-risk work that’s priced according to its efficiency and manageability.
3. Mind the money. Client satisfaction is also a predictor of how long it’ll take for you to get paid. As Faure says, “Firms with low satisfaction scores record significant dereliction at their 30- and 90-day payment points and double the fee-discounting when compared to firms with high client satisfaction scores.” But you should also be aware of a client’s creditworthiness, maintain proactive and transparent billing practices and be prepared to not get paid if it’s good for business.
4. Build long-term relationships. When it comes to delivering the excellent service that keeps clients coming back — and sending their friends — it’s all in the details, according to Peter Kellett over at The Business of Serving Clients blog. Kellett emphasizes the importance of proactive communication that provides a valuable service, which is echoed by Carolyn Elefant in an Above the Law piece about “schooling clients … so that they’ll have a grasp of the basics.” According to Keith Lee at Associate’s Mind, providing services with a “high degree of customization and quality” can build long-term relationships with clients, so that when a client buys your services, you have a customer for life.
5. Dump bad clients. Some clients, however, just aren’t worth the money and are best avoided altogether, according to Randall Ryder at the Lawyerist. “Great clients will enhance your legal skills, your reputation and your bottom line,” Ryder writes. “Bad clients can make you question your skills, destroy your reputation, and result in the worst money you have ever made.” But what if you’ve already taken on (or inherited) a problem client? Law360’s Erin Coe offers five tips in “How to Handle the Client From Hell”: Know what you’re getting into, set clear expectations and boundaries, stay calm, document everything, and do a debriefing. But with 58 percent of people finding lawyers on Yelp, according to a survey by a legal software research firm, what do you do if clients leave a bad review online? Well, you could sue them or learn how to respond to mitigate any damage.