A number of years ago, my wife and I went to the Ritz Carlton in downtown LA to celebrate our anniversary at a new restaurant that had just opened. We booked a reservation and hopped in the car, excited for what we assumed would be a memorable evening. We definitely got what we expected—although not how we’d imagined it.
The evening did not start quite how we’d hoped. As I pulled up to the hotel, my car battery died. I was mortified, and what’s more, I was worried. Remember, it was nighttime in downtown LA. That’s not the safest of places for a car to break down. Would the Ritz Carlton have the car towed? Would they even let us in?
The valet, who must have been no more than 20 years old, seemed to sense my anxiety. He jogged up to the car and waited patiently as I apologetically explained the situation.
“Sir, don’t worry about a thing,” he said. “Go enjoy your dinner. We’ll take care of everything.”
I handed him the keys and left the situation in his hands. And I’m glad I did. While my wife and I wined and dined, that kid managed to find an auto shop that was open late and replaced the battery by the time we had finished dessert.
What is most remarkable about this story is that this wasn’t some highly paid manager going the extra mile; it was a likely fairly low-wage employee at the bottom of the Ritz Carlton hierarchy. He simply knew the expectations for service at his place of work. He knew the service he should deliver, and he made sure to deliver it. Imagine if everyone in your law firm had that same attitude.
Law is a Service
When considering all the possible ways to attract more clients, lawyers very rarely consider the most straightforward basic business principle of them all – provide better service.
Far from heeding this advice, many firms seem to do quite the opposite. They run their firm like a motel and expect to attract clients like they’re the Ritz. If you want to see those Ritz clients, you have to create a firm that lives up to those standards in the same way the high-end hotels always do.
Consider the simple act of taking and returning phone calls. So many firms don’t return calls from potential clients. When a call comes in after hours or over the weekend, it goes to voicemail. Instead of racing to return those calls as soon as someone is back in the office, it can often take days before anyone chases that lead—if they do at all. By the time someone at the office does call back, that case is gone. One of their competitors picked it up in the meantime.
The lesson here ought to be the value of swift responses. Instead, it’s seen as evidence that follow-ups don’t bring in new clients, and little effort is made to improve the system.
And this is really only the beginning of the problem. Even when someone in the office does pick up the phone or return a call to a potential client still looking for a lawyer, their attitude often ranges from unenthusiastic to outright rude, with the occasional variation of simply not being very helpful. If anything, this gives an even worse impression of the firm than no response at all.
Customers, Not Clients
Lawyers feel they can run their firms like this because law firms have always been run like this. After all, this is why we have clients instead of customers, right? Customers expect service, clients get whatever we give them. Our work is so valuable and exclusive that people have to take what they can get from us. Our job is to win the case. Everything else is a luxury.
But we’re no longer living in the 1970s when this was the standard for service across many industries. The clients of today are used to going online and getting near-immediate information or service whenever they need it. Google generates answers in an instant. Amazon delivers millions of items the next day with a click of a button—and increasingly more items the same day. UberEats and DoorDash deliver meals from any restaurant in 30 minutes.
Customers also expect to always speak to a real person when they call a company for information. When they have a problem with their Mac, they can call the Apple helpline at any time, day or night, and speak to an actual technician who diagnoses the issue right away and guides you to a solution. The last time I called my bank, the call was answered within two rings by a real person and the problem was resolved within two minutes.
There are lawyers and trial bar associations who are in denial about the sea of changes coming and are feverishly working hard to keep the status quo, but they can’t hold former expectations in place. The people calling your office don’t draw a line between the service they experience at those businesses and the service they expect at your firm.
Sure, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Uber are all trillion-dollar companies (or close to it) with vast resources. But your client won’t give you allowances for that. They know there’s a standard of service they can get elsewhere. They expect you to keep up with the rest. And if you can’t, they’ll find someone who can.
Put Yourself in Their Shoes
I don’t doubt that many lawyers agree with the proposition that firms should be more customer-friendly. The question becomes how to implement new policies that prioritize the client experience.
On some level, if you have created a strong company culture, you are already on your way. The main adjustment you have to make is to turn some of your core values outward so that your culture includes a client-focused perspective.
On a very basic level, you can codify the most important fact about your firm – there is no firm if there are no clients. This fact is so obvious, and yet, so often, lawyers and their staff lose track of it. Instead of focusing on the necessity of clients, firms come to see them as case files—as a list of details or a percent of the overall caseload, an opportunity for income or a chance to get some publicity—not as the people they actually are.
I don’t want to imply you or your staff are purposely disregarding how your clients feel, only that quite often we forget to put their feelings first. Your office culture must therefore encourage everyone to put aside other concerns and focus on the real people who come to your office facing real struggles.
Review Every Process at Your Firm
If you’re in personal injury or criminal law, this is very likely the worst moment of your client’s life. They would not have come to you if something awful hadn’t happened to them or someone they love. There’s been an injury, a death, or a risk of serious legal consequences. And now they find themselves trying to navigate a system that they do not understand.
Beyond simple gratitude and a call for empathy in your values, you can start using this perspective as a lens to review every process at your firm. For instance, what impression do your new clients get from your firm when they first walk in the door?
From your perspective, you want efficiency in this interaction—get them signed up as quickly as possible—but what about from your client’s perspective? Are you offering them enough reassurance and comfort? Does your office communicate that this is a safe place for them to reveal their worries?
What about updates on cases? Again, from your perspective, if you don’t contact your client for six months, there’s nothing to worry about. That’s just how slow the process is. But your client is sitting at home, every day, wondering whether they will ever be able to pay their medical bills or fix their house or get justice for a loved one who died in a nursing home. Is there a way you could send more frequent updates, even if there’s nothing new to report?
Consider the Best Way to Communicate
How about returning those missed calls? If a client can’t get hold of you one afternoon, from your perspective, it’s simply a matter of a busy schedule. You have a lot of cases, and people have to be patient!
To your client, though, it’s a sign you don’t care enough to pick up and answer a question that could make all the difference in their lives. What can you do to make sure they don’t get that impression from your firm?
With every choice you make in your firm, consider how your clients will perceive that choice. What is the best way to communicate a delay or setback in a case? How can you make sure the wrong person doesn’t respond to an email with a question that is critical to a client’s case? What small acts of kindness can you incorporate into your process to let your clients know you haven’t forgotten them when things slow down?
These are basic considerations in every other industry. It’s time we start coming up with answers of our own.
Putting on the Ritz
To get beyond introspection, though, we need a model on which to base our service. And to me, there’s no model better than the Ritz Carlton. Think about how my wife and I felt when our car died on that LA night. Consider our relief after discovering how far the hotel’s service went on our behalf. Now, imagine how many times I’ve told that story.
Word of mouth is also what often makes the difference in the growth of a firm. Not billboards, not TV and radio commercials—simple, positive reviews your clients share with their friends. Generating overwhelming positive experiences has built the reputation for the Ritz Carlton more than any commercial ever could. It can do the same for you.
So the question for you shouldn’t be whether you should pursue service for clients as vigorously as the Ritz Carlton, but how you reach that level of service as quickly as possible. That is what will set you apart from the competition, and it is what will enable your firm to grow and scale.
For more advice on how to create a client-first experience at your law firm, you can find The Lawyer as CEO on Amazon.