Corner Office

Tell Us What You Want

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Lately, smart law firms have adopted the practice of follow-up interviews and surveys of clients when the work is done, hoping to find out how to better serve them the next time.

Smarter ones might do more of that up front and throughout the engagement to ensure there will be a next time.

Every client has expectations when hiring lawyers, as do lawyers when taking on clients. And while this might not be a men women/Mars Venus thing, every client and every lawyer is different. Each needs to know exactly what the other means in matters such as communication protocols, timeliness, responsiveness, reporting and other aspects of legal representation.

“We all process information differently, and you need to probe deeper with follow-up questions at the outset to be sensitive to the client’s expectations,” says Patrick J. McKenna, an Edmonton, Alberta based consultant with Edge International.

The structure and formality of approaches for this may differ depending on the kind of legal practice. Some may use formal checklists and plans while others instinctively tease out the details. For example, some clients want to communicate by e-mail only. Others never use it. Some want weekly reports and updates on Fridays or Mondays. Others just want to hear about significant developments.

“This is an issue a lot of the time because some clients just hand a matter off to a lawyer and say ‘litigate this’ or ‘handle this,’ ” says Robert L. Haig of New York City’s Kelley Drye & Warren, who has written extensively on relationships between law firms and in house counsel. “If there is more conversation at the beginning of the matter about the client’s goals or expectations, there would be a better relationship and less unhappiness.” The checklist approach is adaptable to almost any kind of law practice. Karen Samuels Jones uses one for her real estate transaction practice in the Denver office of Seattle based Perkins Coie.

“The first thing we do is generate a checklist of re­spon­­sibilities, not only who is responsible but the expected scheduling for delivery,” Jones says. That checklist details who on the legal team will be doing what work, from partners to associates to paralegals, and often includes a list of preferences in matters such as mailings–over­night or second day, for example.

“I bet a lot of us wade into this without having that discussion,” Jones says.

A Personal Plan

The client checklist at the eight lawyer harries Law Firm’s family practice in Denver is lengthy. First a “personalized legal plan” is developed in writing to set out clients’ goals and strategies. Then the clients detail their preferences, weighing in on things such as frequency and method of contact with their lawyers and others who can be consulted about the case.

The initial screening is by Heidi Culbertson, the firm’s director of client development. “That takes me about 20 minutes, and I usually end up with a lawyer in mind,” she says. “I try to match them up on taste and personality. If it doesn’t work out, we make another match.”

A personalized approach means asking questions instead of making assumptions, says David Maister, a Boston based consultant to professional service firms. “Any sentence that begins with ‘what clients want’ is wrong no matter how you finish it,” he says. “Law firms that adopt policies such as returning phone calls within two hours totally misunderstand the concept of client service. That mentality misses the key point that each client is different.”

Lawyers’ questions must be probing. “I recommend asking the same question over and over,” McKenna says. When a client says he or she wants “something like ‘responsiveness,’ you’d think an accomplished litigator would probe a little deeper and ask, ‘What would a law firm look like that’s really responsive to your needs?’ ”

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