Why Lawyers Are Bad at Client Service

I received an email from a reader in response to something I’d written about  excellent client service that said, in part,

Customer Service, whether in a diner, the grandest salon purveying the finest food and beverage in this or any land, or in the conference room filled with the greatest collection of legal minds … is a lot MORE than even what Meyer calls Hospitality, and whether one argues that it can be taught, it CAN be felt.

It’s more than just being on the client’s side. It’s empathy, it’s caring, but it’s also genuinely liking people. The best food servers like serving food to people. The best retail clerks like shopping with their customers. The best salespeople like selling. And the best lawyers like lawyering for their clients.  They think it’s important. It’s what they DO. It’s what they’re MEANT to do. They mean it when they do it, and they love all of it. If they thought they could get away with it and not be called weird, they’d hum while they did research. . .they might even sing while they wrote (just to themselves, of course, I’m just sayin’).

You said something interesting in your blog: “They should always be made to feel that everyone in the firm, regardless of position and familiarity with that particular client, is there to serve the client – as indeed they are. For a truly spectacular client experience, everyone within the firm must be willing to ‘go the extra mile’ for a client, and to do the unexpected.”

I’d be a little more strident: It should be clear that the first, and frankly only job is to serve the client. Period. Until you get to that point, you don’t understand client service, and if you never get to that point, you will NEVER understand it. If I were ignored, or made to wait, I’d take my business elsewhere, especially at the rates law firms charge. And when it comes to legal services, I can guarantee you, there IS another law firm down the street. There may only be one Chef Fancy at Le Chateau Extreme, but, until a lawyer proves herself to be indispensable, she’s pretty much fungible in the eyes of most clients (sad, but true). And even if lawyers are not, law firms ARE.

It’s a LOT more than just being “hospitable” even if you take the “Southern hospitality” meaning into account. I would agree that not everyone can do it, and I’ll say what some won’t: If you can’t bring it out in your people, get rid of them, and find people who have it. They’re out there, and clients deserve it. I know I do.

I agree with a lot of what this reader had to say. Here are some of my thoughts about why some of this may be occurring:

The unfortunate state of things is that many, many lawyers think of themselves as technicians – what they feel they’re MEANT to do has more to do with understanding the law or analyzing a problem than with serving a client. Some of that is the result of the way lawyers are trained.

Lawyers are trained to research precedent and analyze issues in the context of previous decisions. Clients are rarely discussed in law school. There is little, if any, discussion about all of the myriad aspects of serving clients that don’t involve analyzing issues or making arguments. It isn’t surprising that the client service aspect of the profession is often overlooked or ignored, or just not valued by the time lawyers begin practicing. 

Lawyers that practice in large firms after law school have little to no client contact for years, and often see only the small issue they’re working on – they’re rarely informed about the ‘big picture’ or the overall strategy involved in the engagement, let alone the client’s business strategy or needs outside of that particular matter. To a large extent, lawyers are trained to be backward looking. New ideas and innovative thinking are often scoffed at or viewed as too risky or too costly to undertake.

Lawyers often see the legal issue, not the person behind it. They don’t always see that ‘liking people’ is an important aspect of their jobs – and historically, it may not have been as important for lawyers, because clients put up with a lot to get the lawyer’s technical expertise and training.

Many lawyers just don’t see how client service (or lack of it) affects their bottom line – either the nature of their practice doesn’t lend itself to repeat clients or they don’t realize that clients aren’t coming back (and aren’t referring others) because they didn’t receive excellent client service. Many clients won’t leave during the course of an engagement because it’s just too expensive to change lawyers in the middle, and there’s an element of the ‘devil you know vs. the devil you don’t know.’ In those cases, the lawyer doesn’t realize she has ‘lost’ a client because the engagement gets completed despite the client’s dissatisfaction.

Some clients that leave because of poor client service may give a different reason for leaving – it may sound like they’re complaining about fees, but their real complaint may be that they didn’t feel they got value for their money because the service wasn’t up to par.

Since there’s often no easy way for a lawyer to know that a former client had another legal matter and didn’t return to the firm, or that a current or former client didn’t recommend the firm to a friend with a legal problem, this is, to some degree, an ‘invisible’ problem. This can be overcome at least in part if lawyers put better client service/client experience initiatives into place, have frequent conversations with clients about their experience with the firm, have more in depth conversations with clients about expectations, learn to listen more carefully to clients, and regularly survey or review these issues with clients at all stages of the engagement.

A lot of lawyers make the mistake of putting themselves, rather than their clients, in the center of the equation, and that attitude trickles down to the staff. In lots of law firms, the thinking is that the staff exists to help the lawyers, not to help the clients. Although of course, the ‘ support staff’ in a law firm is there to make the firm work more effectively and to support the legal work the firm is doing, many lawyers seem to forget that the legal work is being performed for clients. Without clients, there would be no firm.

I did not ever mean to imply that client service was limited to Meyer’s definition of hospitality as set forth in the Inc. magazine piece, and I agree that as competition increases, lawyers will need to be more and more focused on clients. It’s a lesson they’re still learning, and part of what I’m trying to impart to lawyers. Clients DO deserve more. And lawyers that don’t get it are going to eventually learn the hard way.

I’m not trying to make excuses for lawyers, but to those ‘on the outside’ who may not have experienced legal education or the (sometimes unfortunate) realities of legal practice may not realize that all of that education and experience shapes the thoughts, beliefs and actions of lawyers.

The best way to increase the level of client service that is being provided is to continue the discussion, and to make that discussion practical and productive – to show lawyers how client service (or lack of it) affects their practice on a profound level, and what they can do to change that and increase the quality of representation they provide to their clients.

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Allison C. Shields
Legal Ease Consulting, Inc
Creating Productive, Profitable and Enjoyable Law Practices

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