The social Law Firm (otherwise known as Law Firm 2.0)

I’ve been a little obsessed with what a law firm should or could look like in this era of a social Web and a two-way flow of communication between providers and their clients becoming a norm. The social Web introduced the possibility of engaging a little differently with clients and I have been debating (mostly with myself – its been an interesting private conversation) what I could change in our firm to take advantage of this “social media mindset” in our day to day business.

It is pretty clear to me that the traditional legal services model is changing. At least the focus is shifting from documents back to raw expertise because that is ultimately what practicing law is about (at least in my humble experience of about a decade or so). There are a number of services popping up that sell legal documents to the person on the street for far less than what an attorney would charge to prepare them. While there is certainly still a market for more intricate documents due to the special requirements for those documents that a standard document off the shelf could never anticipate but I suspect even those documents could somehow find themselves on a shelf at CNA one day.

Short of a readily available and really effective artificial intelligence, lawyers’ knowledge can’t be replicated and put on a shelf just yet. Clients still need to brief attorneys to harness what is often highly specialized and carefully cultivated legal knowledge and that is where our value as a profession lies. But this isn’t what I wanted to write about in this post. What I have been thinking about lately has more to do with how we work with our clients.

I made a silly decision the other day which had to do with applying aspects of our terms of appointment to a couple of our clients. I met with one of those clients soon after I sent off the email informing them about our decision. Our meeting was a regularly scheduled status meeting to discuss a number of files we are working on for his company (this client takes advantage of our retainer fee structure so its worthwhile for him to meet with us regularly to discuss developments and new work) but at the end of our discussion about ongoing work, we chatted about my email. The discussion became an invaluable feedback session where we debated a number of issues. What I realized as we debated these issues is that the decision I took was more in line with what I see as a traditional approach to client management on some level. It was ironic because my focus is on social media and a very different approach to customers by their providers.

A had a couple “a-ha” moments in the course of that meeting and it got me thinking about better ways to communicate with our clients. Another irony is that many of the lessons I learned yesterday morning were communicated to me years ago in my previous firm, albeit as advice to play a more political game with colleagues and clients to ensure their collegiality and patronage (I have a strong aversion to political games, I am far more in favour of authentic interaction with people and that is one of social media’s appeals). What I realized is hardly revolutionary. Many of the ideas about client interaction go back generations to the days of small villages and marketplaces. They are also ideas which have been implemented by better lawyers than me as long as there have been lawyers and their clients. I thought I’d share some of these ideas anyway.

Image credit: 25/365 – Organization. by BLW Photography (licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license)

There seems to be a gulf between lawyers and their clients for the most part. Lawyers are these mystical creatures who employ strange language and machinations in an effort to achieve seemingly simple results. I often see it in the way that we lawyers speak and draft our documents and I’ve written about the importance of speaking plainly about what we do and the documents we create before. I think one of the reasons we perpetuate this is as a sort of defence against the unwashed masses (our clients). We raise these linguistic barriers to prevent them from trying to do what we do themselves. Lawyers also work to maintain the perception that we are vital to our clients (we are actually but not because we use complicated language – its because the world is becoming increasingly complex and regulated and you need lawyers to interpret and navigate those legal frameworks).

What is often missing is a realization that clients are not a threat but can be our best allies. As I listened to what my client was telling me, I realized that I was listening to a passionate evangelist for our retainer fee structure (he has often told me he doesn’t understand why more clients don’t take advantage of our retainer fee structure because of its cost saving alone), if not our firm and the way we do business.

Photo credit: Day 236: Attorney and client by madmolecule (licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license)

He also reminded me about the importance of personal contact with clients. I do much of my work remotely and it is easy to forget the tremendous value of personal contact with a client as opposed to an email. This isn’t exactly a revelation, good business people all over the world and going back in time realized this and formed deep and meaningful relationships with their clients in the process.

This all got me thinking about how I can communicate better with our clients and making better decisions about our business that help build evangelists rather than focus too heavily on the business itself. I was reminded that spending more time on making sure we have happy clients will benefit our business along the way and perhaps in ways we haven’t thought possible. I’d like to see that gulf between us and our clients shrink and even disappear. I want my clients to give us feedback and even tell us off when we do something to harm our relationship with them. No news is bad news for a social law firm based on meaningful relationships. It also seems to mean that face to face contact trumps phone contact which trumps email or IM contact when it comes to building and maintaining relationships.

Social media is about building relationships with customers using tools online. Running a social law firm is perhaps more about using those online tools to enhance relationships cultivated face to face, so to speak. Whatever it is, it is a work in progress and probably always will be.

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