Stell: Evidence of a Lawyer-Focused Firm Rather Than a Client-Centric Firm

Most lawyers and law firms pride themselves on being client service oriented, but  are they?

Here are a few of the policies and practices that law firms engage in that may reveal that they are lawyer-focused rather than client-focused.

Website Design

While client referrals and a strong network of referral sources is key to building your law firm business, an Adweek survey shows 81% of customers conduct online research before buying. Sixty percent begin the process by using a search engine to identify products they want and 61% read reviews before making any purchase. While the numbers may not translate directly from products to services, today’s client is using the web to make important decisions.

So what does your web presence say? Here’s what lawyers say about client service:

“Because you’re a client, not just a case. At Essex Richards, we provide solutions to help our clients.” Retrieved from Essex Richards website

“We’re a law firm that believes in building long-term relationships. We do that by listening to you and getting to know your legal needs.” Retrieved from Manning Fulton website

“Trust is the backbone of a mutually rewarding relationship. We strive to completely understand our clients’ businesses and needs in order to become a partner in their future.” Retrieved from Smith Moore Leatherwood

“At Young Moore, you are never simply a case number or file to process. Our respected practice has been based on personal relationships for over 60 years.” Retrieved from Young Moore website

“We care about our clients. We want everything to change for the better when you hire us. We want to be your Turning Point.” Retrieved from Turning Point Litigation

As you can see, lawyers are serious about client service. Or at least as far as the messaging on their websites. But what do clients think about the message you are sending? Is it the right one?

Here is some standard fare about client service, “We serve businesses, government, non-profit institutions, trade associations and individuals. We work with clients on a regional, national, and international level.”

This is a firm that can potentially provide any service to anyone, anywhere. Is this effective messaging to clients?

Compare this message to that of John Szymankiewicz with the Beer Law Center. First, you have to love a law firm website that looks like a tap room and the email newsletter subscription button that looks like a bottlecap. At first glance, we know this isn’t our father’s law firm.

Also, the language on the website is written by people for people. Not marketing speak. Not legalese. Here’s an example, “I explain all of that to say that if your business is in NC, I can probably help you with anything beer related (emphasis is mine). But, if your business is in another state, I can only help you with certain areas of law. For the other areas, I would have to refer you to a local lawyer.”

Certainly, this is written with a client in mind as John explains potential jurisdiction issues.

How about this statement, “By leveraging technology and completing as much work as we can electronically, we keep our overhead expenses low and keep our focus on you and your matter, not on paying the rent on our office space.” This is music to the ears of an entrepreneurial client looking to start a local brewery.

Approach to Compensation

Law firm compensation systems reflect actions that firms have determined are important such as bringing in clients, getting business from clients and generating billable hours. These are metrics which are built around things that lawyers believe to be important, but they are not necessarily items that are important to the business. Growing your business requires more than rainmaking. It also requires leadership, mentorship, technological proficiency, financial expertise and practice management. But, few firms provide a financial incentive for their lawyers for these kinds of investments of their time. As a result, few lawyers invest in building these skills. This makes for a business model that emphasizes rewarding rainmakers rather than rewarding the work of creating business models that live beyond the current generation of rainmakers.

Profits Per Partner

The law firm model of dividing profit at the end of the year rather than investing money into the business is a principle that is lawyer-focused rather than client-focused. Client-focused ventures are interested in research and development and technology developments. Building law firms that provide services to clients in new ways, that allow for exploration of resources, purchase of new products and training in new areas, requires an investment of money. Too often, lawyers must decide whether to spend money while knowing that money that is not spent goes back into their pocket. The conflict is often too difficult to overcome. So, the end-of-year dividend is greater for each lawyer, but the firm as a whole suffers.

Failing to Plan for Transitions

Building one-generation law firms is lawyer-focused. Building a law firm that can provide long-term service to clients is the essence of excellent client service. Your clients are planning for their own succession, how can you as their advisor and counselor ignore the same good advice?

Lawyer Focused Personnel Policies

Many law firms have one set of policies for lawyers and another for employees. For example, it’s not uncommon that paralegals receive 6 weeks of maternity leave while attorneys receive 3 months. Compare this to the national brokerage firm, TD Ameritrade, where all parents – moms, dads, and adoptive parents – receive 16 weeks of parental leave.

A different personnel policy for lawyer parents signifies that some people in the organization are more important than others, a lawyer-focused mindset.

Classification of People

A common complaint and real issue in work place morale is the idea that we are classified as J.D.s and everyone else.

This negates the idea that people without a law degree can bring value to your firm. One problem with this mindset, other than the fact that it is just wrong and is certainly outdated, is that it becomes the culture of the law firm. And it’s hard to shake off your culture. So, when a lawyer interacts with clients, who usually are not lawyers, the lawyer is steeped in the mindset that lawyers are somehow better. This is not a client-focused behavior. It often impacts a lawyer without the lawyer being aware of it, in the lawyer’s interactions with clients, other professionals and community members.

Lawyers say all the right things when it comes to client service. Now it’s time to implement policies that show you mean what you say.

Camille Stell is the Vice President of Client Services for Lawyers Mutual. Continue this conversation by contacting Camille at camille@lawyersmutualnc.com or 800.662.8843.

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