What do clients want and how can lawyers deliver?

John Giles, one of the partners over at Michalsons, published a post every lawyer should read. His post is titled “What clients want” and it certainly got my attention:

I recently used an attorney to evict one of my tenants and recover rent that they had not paid. It was really interesting to be on the other side of the fence for once. Rather than being an attorney providing a service to a client, I was the client receiving the service from an attorney. I must say it was not a good experience. But I learnt a lot from it and it made me realise “what clients want“. So here are some of the things that, as a client, I wanted. I have made a promise to myself that I will always try to do the same things for my clients.

Ms. Gail Falk Seltzer, a Black Lung Benefits Staff Lawyer for the United Mine Workers Field Services Office in Charleston, West Virginia 04/1974Giles sets out a number of ways attorneys can really improve their levels of service and more effectively give their clients what they really want from their advisors. I wish I could say I have been doing all these things for my clients but it is so easy to get caught up in the myriad tasks and deadlines that I too easily forget about some of the basics.

Being an attorney is a complicated occupation. There must be a dozen attorneys in a kilometre radius from my office (and just about any other street corner you may find yourself at in most major cities) and competition for some types of work is fierce. As clients become even more cost conscious attorneys are pressed to adopt a number of strategies to secure and keep their clients. Many attorneys in smaller firms will charge lower fees and attorneys in larger firms just won’t do work for certain clients who can’t afford their fees. Add the perennial perceived value challenge to the mix and the end result is often a land grab for as much work as you can bring in. The problem with that approach is that unless the volume of work is appropriate given the type of cases involved (volume works well for debt collections, not much variation), the danger is not dedicating enough focus to each file and the client behind that file.

At that point service quality deteriorates and clients become frustrated. Some clients will ask questions, challenge their attorneys where they are not giving enough feedback and others will keep quiet, perhaps assuming that this is normal and that something must be going on. That latter group of clients is perhaps most worrying and too easy to overlook.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit and the solution, for me at least, is probably a little counter-intuitive but I think it is the right one. My solution is to be far more selective about which clients I take on and spend more time focusing on a smaller client base and the work I am most passionate about, aiming for much improved and personal service. We all have clients who are not our ideal clients or who simply don’t see the value in what we do and delay payments or simply don’t pay at all. Those clients also tend to take up a lot of time which, given time’s scarcity, comes from time that could be spent on the sorts of clients we’d rather focus on. That often also comes after our less than ideal clients persuade us to reduce our fees to barely break even levels.

I remember having a conversation with Richard Mulholland one night in Japan in 2008 as we walked through the streets of Sapporo to find an Italian place for dinner. We were talking about pricing professional services and, at one point in the conversation, Rich made the point (I’ll paraphrase what I took away from his point) that when you start charging more for your services, whether it be to focus on better paying work or to place a higher value on your work, some clients will stop briefing you and move on to more suitable advisors. What happens in the process is that you find yourself in a position to give your clients who remain far better service without the constant worry about where the money is coming from to pay bills.

It sounds pretty cold to reduce client choice and the manner in which a business is conducted to Rands and cents but these are businesses intended to make a profit and sustain their proprietors, freeing them to focus on the important stuff – their clients’ files and their objectives.

What Giles is talking about in his post is meaningful and personal service which should be every attorney’s goal (well, at least those attorneys who would like to cultivate a loyal and better quality client base). These are things worth doing well.

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