Law is a service business.
Although my job is to help lawyers market themselves, it’s only when you are the client yourself, you are reminded of the basic human impulses that determine why you choose one lawyer over another.
Over the last few years I’ve hired several lawyers for a variety of business and personal reasons.
My bugbear with lawyers is poor responsiveness.
Here are some of my experiences:
- Recently I contacted the head of corporate/commercial at a small-medium-sized firm for help with a commercial agreement. He didn’t reply. I later leant that the firm was struggling and the partners were quiet. This makes no sense to me. Separately, I later met with the marketing manager of the firm and mentioned this. She was horrified. It’s an illustration of the limitations of legal marketing: you can have the best marketers and initiatives in the world, but ultimately, traditional firms rely on individual lawyers on the front line to provide good customer service. If they don’t act responsively, the good work of the rest of the firm is undone.
- I recently contacted three lawyers – all from decent and well known commercial firms – for some commercial advice. It was a specialized area so I decided to use a new lawyer, not my regular commercial advisor. With new lawyers, I use legal directories and online sites, and learn as much as I can from bios, blogs, Linked-In, and other web resources. I then email and/or call. Of the three lawyers, one responded positively within an hour. The second responded within a couple of days but said she was busy for the next month – could it wait? The third eventually responded six weeks later. By that point, I had hired Lawyer One, the legal work was done, and the matter had progressed. When I responded to Lawyer Three, he was surprised and said he didn’t realize it was urgent. What lawyer thinks clients just sit around for more than a month waiting and hoping for them to respond? Do they not realize it’s a competitive market? How about a quick response asking the client how quickly the work needs to be done. You can then manage expectations. It may be that the job isn’t urgent, and that the client will wait. To me, it’s common sense – the basics of running a service business. But many lawyers seem not to get this. By the way, I have since been back to Lawyer One for more work. Responsiveness equals client service equals repeat work.
- My observation is that there is no correlation between size/prestige of firm and level of responsiveness. You might expect successful lawyers at large, prestigious firms to be more selective and complacent, while lawyers at small and medium size firms hungrier and more competitive. Not so in my experience. An example: a few years ago I was considering moving my consultancy business to the United States and I sought advice from an immigration attorney about possible options. Immigration is one of those practices where big is not always best, at least for a smaller clients. So I tried a couple of one-man-bands, and some medium-sized firms. However, I thought I would try a well-known Wall St firm that had a small immigration department. I figured they were out of my league and price bracket, but you never know. Sure enough, they were the first one to respond. The partner in charge of the department responded quickly, politely and with a detailed advice note. Having moved back and forth between Europe and the U.S in recent years, I will almost certainly go this guy again when I need some immigration advice. A couple of the other lawyers I contacted didn’t respond or got a paralegal/junior assistant to reply.
- Most people would rather get a reply, even if it’s negative, than no reply at all. A couple of years ago after I contacted a firm, the partner sent me a polite email explaining that they did not work with companies with revenues of less than GBP 10 million. I admired the partner for clarifying his firm’s approach. Effectively, he was saying: “you’re small fry and not important enough for us”. But I don’t have a problem with that. Honesty is best. This is what law firms should do – define their market, be confident, and stake out that territory. A few days later, an associate from the firm followed up by phone. Good customer service.
- The best service I ever received from a lawyer was for a really small, low value matter. When something can be easily commoditized, customer service is they key differentiator. The lawyer was super-efficient, communicative and responsive. She was in touch constantly, checked everything was OK, followed up afterwards, and sent a thank you note. Lawyers like this will always do well. You don’t need to be a legal genius, just responsive and good with clients.
- Most lawyers are not responsive enough. If you call a lawyer, they should return your call within a day. If you email them, they should email you back within a day. Lawyers that don’t do this cannot complain if they are quiet or have no business.
- With some lawyers, you sense you are placed at the end of a long queue, and they will get round to you when they can be bothered – not when it suits you
- If I had a choice between a very good lawyer who was slow to respond, and an average-good lawyer who was highly responsive, I would choose the latter. I would also pay more for a responsive lawyer.
- Lawyers forget that they are in a service business. No-one wants to call a lawyer. Lawyers are expensive, and you only bring in lawyers because you have to, not because you want to. Therefore, when you call a lawyer, it’s invariably because there’s a problem or you’re worried about something, or because something can’t happen in your business until a lawyer has approved a course of action. In almost all scenarios when legal services are required, there is some time pressure. Most lawyers aren’t alive to these commercial realities. They don’t realize – or don’t care – that things can’t progress without their input.
- Some lawyers don’t seem to want your business. That’s fine – they may be doing just fine. Yet we are told repeatedly that law firms are facing terrible times, and even an existential crisis.
- I know law firms need filters in place to weed out time wasters, speculative enquiries, those for whom the firm is not suitable, and lunatics – but a partner or head of department who is advertised on a website as the point of contact should be able to send a quick courtesy reply to every legitimate lead or prospect. As a business owner myself, I would never dream of not replying to someone who may want to buy my product or services, even if they’re not quite the client you’re seeking.
- Unresponsiveness has become socially acceptable. I’m old enough to remember the early days of the internet, and I sent my first email in 1994. There is still something precious to me about receiving a discrete email from somebody, in the same way as you used to receive a letter. Maybe I’m old fashioned but anyone who takes the trouble to write to you individually (I’m not talking about boilerplate/mass mailouts) deserves a response.
- Some partners don’t reply but get an associate to response instead. This is better than no reply at all, but I still think this is rude. How many seconds does it take to write: “Thanks for your inquiry. David will be in touch with you shortly to discuss your matter.”
- People think that if they haven’t got anything positive to say, then they shouldn’t say anything at all. I disagree strongly. If you don’t reply to someone, that person is left hanging and wonders why you didn’t reply. Most people in business are thick skinned enough to take rejection. “Sorry, I’m not able to meet with you.” “Unfortunately, we only advise companies with revenues of more than GBP 10 million.” Rejection can be handled with politeness and class. At least people know where they stand. If you don’t reply, they might assume a line of communication is still open.
- Unresponsiveness is somehow acceptable now. A friend of mine is a legal consultant and travels a lot. He told me that 10 years ago, when he went to a new city for business, he would email/text the two or three people he knew in that city and hope to meet those people for lunch or a drink. They would almost always reply. Now, those same people typically do not reply. It’s now acceptable not to reply to people – even close friends and associates. Business has turned into a game of percentages where if you contact enough people, perhaps one will reply promptly.
- Disorganization is somehow acceptable now. How many times have you heard: “Sorry. I missed your e-mail.” Or you catch up with someone in person: “Sorry, I forgot to reply several months ago.” The standard narrative is that we are overwhelmed with communications and can’t possibly deal with everything that is thrown at us. Yet the technology exists to manage and organize your emails, phone calls, social media and other forms of communications in a way that wasn’t possible 10 years ago.
- Some lawyers are deluded with self-importance and believe that if they reply too quickly, it suggests they are quiet and lacking more urgent and important business. Believe me, we want you to reply quickly.