The Model for Law Firms Looking to Improve Client Relations
Editor’s Note: The author of this post is the founder and CEO of Legal Mosaic, a strategic consulting firm and a regular contributor to Big Law Business.
By Mark Cohen, Chief Executive Officer, Legalmosaic
Most people — especially lawyers — would not imagine that a legal technology company’s focus is on customer satisfaction. After all, aren’t those companies, so the thinking goes, bent on replacing lawyers?
A recent visit to LegalZoom revealed that it is deeply committed to ensuring its technology is customer friendly. It is equally zealous about optimizing customer satisfaction for its subscription services customers. These are individuals and small businesses that, for a monthly fee, have unlimited 30minute consultations with a panel of counsel. The attorneys are independent contractors who maintain their own practices while providing consults for LegalZoom customers. These sessions often result in client engagements for which LegalZoom receives no fee.
The company coaches attorneys on how to improve customer interactions and has developed a robust set of metrics to monitor the customer experience. But LegalZoom does not engage in the practice of law. After prevailing in every unauthorized practice claim brought against it in various states, that much has (hopefully) been settled.
And while LegalZoom no doubt is keen to produce a strong return on investment for its financial backers and stakeholders, its focus is on customers. From its technology to its subscription services, the focus is customer satisfaction. Perhaps that’s why the company has already helped 3.6 million customers and has helped form one million small businesses. And it is addressing the access to justice crisis by making legal services more affordable and accessible. It may not be a panacea, but is a huge step forward.
Note to law firms: you could learn from these guys.
LegalZoom is building a differentiated and formidable brand by customer satisfaction backed by meaningful metrics, not by size or PPP.
Read My Lips: It’s About the Customer/Client
One big reason many law firms are seeking a “Plan B” is because they have given primacy to PPP and internal finances over client satisfaction. How is it that so many other industries focus on client satisfaction when firms concentrate on profit?
Law firms tend to concentrate on how much work they can do rather than client needs and expectations. Their efficiency improvement tends to be internal rather than client facing. Likewise, financial concessions to clients have generally been responsive, not proactive. And their client communication skills are generally fair at best. As the Captain said in Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” Ironic, too, since lawyers are in the communication — and persuasion — business.
During the past several decades, law firms have morphed from small groups to global behemoths, and most of their attorneys have little or no client contact. Also, corporate clients — unlike retail ones — lack a face or personality; it’s hard to identify with them. That’s why it’s important for lawyers to personalize even large corporate clients.
This is not to suggest that corporate law firms don’t represent clients zealously. Of course they do. But managing clients has become a lost art. And client satisfaction is not front and center as it must be. Why is this?
Most Lawyers Lack Client Skills
Client management (from case intake to post mortem) is a seminal legal skill. Unfortunately, it is something most lawyers cannot hone because they have received no training nor have had much exposure.
Law students are rarely taught how to interview a client, much less how to manage client expectations. Corporate lawyers — especially younger ones — are generally several layers removed from the client. And while retail practice provides more client exposure, training is acquired on-the-job and often without supervision or mentoring.
Bottom line: legal education — unlike medical training — does little to prepare students for handling clients.
Which takes us back to my visit to LegalZoom and the conversation I had with Richard Kort who manages the customer satisfaction program for LegalZoom subscription services and tracks customer satisfaction metrics. Richard is not a lawyer but has dealt with them for years. He is a customer satisfaction expert and someone for whom data, not hearsay and anecdotal evidence, is king. His mission is to ensure customer satisfaction, and that includes working with the company’s subscription service attorneys to promote positive customer experience. It’s a checklist of customer (client) skills that every lawyer should learn in law school.
I asked Richard what it was like dealing with lawyers, and he smiled and responded: “Let me start by telling what I have learned from customers who have consulted with lawyers on our panel. Because it’s the client perspective that’s most important.”
Just imagine drawing that response from a managing partner.
Richard described a number of recurrent lawyer challenges dealing with customers (clients). Here’s his list with my commentary:
- Lawyers tend to be better talkers than listeners.
This is hardly a surprise but it underscores that lawyers lack client training. It’s about the client, not the lawyer. Most lawyers-retail and corporate-want to tell the client what they know. But asking the right questions and listening enables them to apply what they know and to exercise judgment. That’s the essence of being a lawyer.
- Lawyers want to monetize everything now.
Law is about persuasion. The lawyer must persuade a potential client to become one; persuade the client to repose trust in her (relationship building); persuade the other side of the strength of the client’s case; and persuade the trier of fact at trial. Getting paid a fair fee is important, but relationship building and reputational enhancement are keys to long-term success-especially in this age of social media.
- Lawyers don’t do well with the initial client interview.
See above. It is not a skill that most attorneys are practiced in. And it’s essential. It sets the tone for the client relationship. It also implicates the first two issues.
- Clients often tell lawyers they learned things on the Internet or from others and that they are not hearing anything new from counsel.
This is more common in the retail segment than corporate practice. That said, the common theme is that we are living in the information age where lawyers no longer are the only ones with access to legal information (witness Harvard’s recent initiative to provide free public access to millions of pages from its law library). Lawyers interpret and apply that information (e.g. exercise professional judgment). They need not be paid princely sums — as they once did — for “finding” the law.
Some Universal Keys
Whether a lawyer is engaged in retail or corporate practice, the key elements of client management are universal. They include:
- Establishing trust and instilling confidence (persuading the client)
- Communicating competency (the antithesis of pedantry and dogmatism)
- Showing interest (the human side)
- Cordiality and responsiveness (service 1.0)
LegalZoom measures lawyer performance from the customer perspective, constantly evaluating data and then reviewing it with the lawyers. And while they do not opine about legal judgment, they do track results and promote a superior client-attorney relationship by ensuring panel counsel are “customer friendly.”
It’s a win-win-win. The client has a better experience; the attorney improves client skills based upon data and significant input, and the company burnishes its brand.
Note to law firms: there is something to this.
The irony of LegalZoom’s approach is that as bold and futuristic as its model is, it is equally a throwback. It takes a highly individualized approach to delivering legal services. And it carefully tracks the customer experience so that it can constantly improve upon it. Law firms were once this way- minus the technology and with many fewer clients. But the attorney-client relationship was far more personal then, and there was far more client interaction. That has been lost as law firms have grown in size and global imprint.
Client focus is an area law firms have fallen short. They did not have to worry much about clients when it was a seller’s market and they were the only game in town. But that is no longer the case.
Clients, after all, are customers buying legal services. “The customer is always right” approach to service, experience, and follow-up is just as important in the delivery of legal services as it is in retail or any other sector. One could make a case for it being even more so in law where clients usually seek legal service when there is a problem.
Client centricity works.
Just ask LegalZoom.