Sylvia Low, Bizilaw Editor
14 May 2008
What you do when you practice law is to provide your client with a legal service. Professionals (not just lawyers, but anyone providing a service for a fee) are invariably judged on more than their technical competency. You may sincerely believe that your clients are paying you for your legal expertise. The truth is your expertise is assumed and your client can hardly tell how skillful your legal reasoning is over another competent lawyer; but they can certainly tell if your service falls short.
Marketing gurus are fond of saying; The first step to marketing a service is getting the service right. Many lawyers do not see how investing in improving service delivery whether in staff training or implementing in a practice management system will earn them more.
Yet there are so many ways for client care and service standards to fall short; from the way your staff answers the phone to how you monitor case deadlines; providing good service is much more than a matter of professional etiquette, it is a business imperative.
The key to avoiding the pitfalls of poor delivery standards is to ensure that communication between you (your practice) and your client is always open and good.
Here are some tips to improve client communication:-
1. Spending time making sure that your client understands the terms of engagement; if both sides have not established from the outset what the engagement is to achieve, the client may come to the conclusion that his lawyer is incompetent when the desired outcome is not achieved. When drafting the engagement letter, focus your communication on understanding the intent and desired outcome of the client. Take time to explain the legal strategy or tasks you will be undertaking on the client’s behalf; and don’t underplay possible adverse outcomes of these actions.
2. Keep the client informed. You may be doing a great job with the negotiations or court applications or opposing counsel for the other side, but if the client is never told, he will not be appreciative of your efforts on his behalf.
3. Take time to explain your billing process at the time of engagement and prepare a detailed bill wherever possible. If the client receives a bill which states for legal services rendered without a description of the specific tasks and legal outputs you have delivered, they are more likely to wonder why it cost so much.
4. Return phone calls promptly. No one likes to feel ignored. Even if you are unable to respond personally, have your secretary or paralegal step in and explain why you are unavailable and will return the call by a stipulated time.
5. Implement an effective case monitoring system to ensure that no case file falls asleep through inaction on your part. Apart from the legal consequences of expiring statutory deadlines, clients will appreciate that you care enough about their case to send them updates and reminders.
6. Train your staff to recognise key clients and their staff (for corporate clients) and to treat them with respect and consideration. You can be sure that negative feedback will be transmitted to their bosses very quickly if they feel snubbed or belittled.
7. Implement a diary / reminder system to help you keep in touch with inactive clients. Take time to understand their business so that you can more easily offer other legal services to them. Network for them – Whom do ou know may be able to help your client’s business? Can you send business their way? By showing your interest in helping your client succeed, you can be sure that he will think of you when he needs legal advice.
Solicit client feedback. You can use a questionnaire; or simply take time to ask how they think you are faring. Should you be doing something different? Do they have any complaints about the service of you and your staff?
Feedback should be recorded and acted upon, not paid lip service to.