Failing to acknowledge the 800-pound gorilla may yield just enough guilt to make you seem dubious. Repeat purchasers and fine purveyors of legal services each have a knack for stumbling headlong into impossibly complicated circumstances seemingly written for daytime dramas. If lawyers are overly literal and clients often take legal problems personally, it may be mathematically inevitable that expectations and interests become more misaligned as the one constant, time, elapses.
That’s the essence of the pettifogger coefficient: If the customer is always right, then a partial or total lack of interest in the client’s point of view—correct or incorrect—may cause even the most factually righteous lawyer to appear self-interested or underhanded. The effect is multiplied the longer the distortion continues unchecked.
Call it what you like, but the only way to combat the pettifogger coefficient is to gain perspective from your client at appropriate intervals in the relationship. In more than 16 years of varying legal industry roles and responsibilities, only on the rarest of occasions have I heard an attorney admit that they are not completely certain what their client thinks about them, the other members of the legal team, the quality of service provided or whether anything under the sun could be improved. Instead, most lawyers behave as if they know what is best for every one of their clients and, in fact, were deeply aware of such facts before the thought even began to crystallize in the client’s pretty little head.
Sensing the unintended arrogance that leads to potentially incorrect assumptions, some client relationship managers excel at double- and triple-checking those assumptions against client preferences and standard operating procedures. Some attorneys send surveys at the end of important projects. Still others employ “outside” people to interview clients on their behalf, typically someone from the firm not on the legal team, or sometimes a consultant, and report back on opinions and targeted areas of improvement.
While I have been intimately involved in end-of-matter surveys and outside client satisfaction interviews, let’s look at the first approach: informal surveying performed by the lawyer who oversees the client’s work. It is not that this approach is necessarily better; it is fundamentally different from the other approaches, which could be covered in other articles. I think the attorney-led client satisfaction query approach is likely easiest, and, while it certainly falls under the ABA’s Model Rule 1.4 duty of communication, may also be the most often overlooked of the three.
One last point before jumping in: If you have no intention of changing your provision of service in some way, do not ask for feedback. I cannot possibly emphasize that enough. Client feedback, whether glowing or scathing, should be treated as infinitely valuable and necessarily actionable. The greatest damage done through such a process may be in gaining the knowledge and then failing to respond in any meaningful way. Ignorance may indeed be bliss.
The very best clients to target for regular satisfaction queries are your bankable, year-over-year clients. These clients have been writing you checks that, though they vary in size, underwrite your practice in terms of longevity and dependability. And though you may not do every stitch of their legal work, you know who does and may even wield some influence on who does work that is outside your wheelhouse. Perhaps you aren’t geographically situated to get face time often. On the other hand, maybe you end up at the same event every other week and your kids are practically relations: occasionally such conversations don’t happen for fear of risking the personal relationship. That doesn’t seem like a healthy relationship at all.
You may be tempted to get an “attaboy” from your favorite clients. You know the ones: they love you; in their minds you are capable of walking on water. I’m not suggesting that positive feedback doesn’t go a long way. However, be sure that you’re not wasting your favorite client’s time and yours. Instead, you just might glean the most beneficial feedback from “one of those clients.”
Come on, everybody has them. They are the clients that call on the weekends and late at night with the granular question that they should have asked weeks ago, but now require answers yesterday. These special clients demand a discount out of the gate, and then nickel-and-dime you on bills that you wrote down before they went out the door. In short, if you dream of having the ability to fire a problem client but simply can’t afford to, you may be well-served to get proactive and ask how you’re doing. And don’t do it only to preempt the next complaint from left field. Ask the questions because you have to work for them for an indeterminate period of time.
Another direction could be newer clients that demonstrate serious potential to grow. Nobody (but lawyers) wishes legal problems on someone else. Instead, these clients have roadmaps that are more than aspirational. In addition, they are the ones where you are literally a part of their team, not a lawyer, consultant or vendor. Though they may not have serious liability on the horizon, their business will explode and legal spend will scale to meet new business challenges. Asking open-ended questions about how your service level could improve will only embed you deeper into the executive team.
Blessed be the Prepared
You can fire off your questions to the client you have selected in an informal way while still doing your homework. But rather than making preparation the last bastion of procrastination, thoughtfully organize your queries and then be ready move from the script to bring greater clarity to the best nuggets. Consider preparing for your conversation by planning to:
- Get there in person on your dime. Technology is great, but personal contact will always be better. The most critical reason to do your interview live is because your clients pay good money for excellent legal services. Secondarily, it is just as important to read body language as it is to listen to your client’s answers. Do it off the clock for obvious reasons.
- Take notes on what is said and not said. Though it may not seem informal to you, to the interviewee it shows that you plan to revisit the conversation later, if nothing else. You will have to work a little harder to make it feel informal. However, the result is that interviewees provide more thoughtful responses and you can better recall the non-verbal cues to more completely frame the tone of the message.
- Ask probing, follow-up questions to your lead open-ended questions. As you’ll see below, your opening questions are high-level, innocuous inquiries that cannot be answered “yes” or “no.” Such a format eliminates your influence from the start, since this entire exercise is about your client and not you. By deeply listening to their answer, you should be able to ask two or more follow up questions on each line of questioning to drill down into their underlying motivations.
- Not sell. That’s right: your interview can’t be a thinly veiled sales pitch. If you really want honest, uninterrupted feedback, take notes on potential leads that come up and circle back to them later. Otherwise, your interviewee will sense that you don’t place much value on their perspective, and worse, feel like you only showed up to shake them down. Play it cool. In my experience, new legal work comes out of such conversations a majority of the time, and that’s when you pass up the completely open door in the interview.
Lawyers shy away from asking open-ended questions, especially those for which they don’t already have the answers. On the other side of the coin, who likes being cross-examined? This exercise may be a different skill altogether from lawyering. Regardless, below are some questions to get you started. Supplement this list based on your relationship and service issues that you know have occurred in the past, as well as emerging problems in the future.
- What do you like about working with me [and my firm]?
- What is the best part of your job?
- When I’m (we’re) handling your matters, what is working and what isn’t?
- What do other lawyers with whom you work do that is better or different than my service to you?
- Do you feel like you see me often enough?
- What type of educational information do you like to receive from lawyers?
- What could I be doing to make your life easier?
- What are your current, major concerns when it comes to legal issues?
- What industry trends are affecting your company? How can I help you stay ahead of those trends?
Just like tennis players who have difficulty directing their shots, lawyers who don’t follow-up risk the scattershot effect: just hoping something lands. After you’ve spoken with your client, confirm your notes back to the client and ask whether you got it right. Since clients often work with more than one lawyer, consider who else on your legal team could benefit from the feedback. Then make a plan to deal with any issues and rank them in terms of immediacy. Finally, report back to your client on actions you are taking to demonstrate that you’ve listened and are taking action.
Healthy relationships take work. Those relationships that have soured make for great punchlines. In the end, a worthy goal should be to appreciate good lawyer jokes, and not be the subject of one.
About the Author
John D. Bowers is the chief operating officer at Patterson Intellectual Property Law, PC in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the editor-in-chief of Law Practice, executive director of the Tennessee Intellectual Property Law Association and is a member of the Association of Legal Administrators. Contact him at JDB@iplawgroup.com
(Feature Image Credit: ShutterStock)