Management Assistance Program on www.OKbar.org

The Client-Centered Law Practice (Part 1 of 2) 

By Jim Calloway, Director, OBA Management Assistance Program 

Author's Note: For well over a year, I've given my program on the client-centered law practice to many of our county bars and other state legal organizations. It was also presented in a slightly different format to ABA TECHSHOW® 2003. This material has been revised and re-polished several times and now will run in the Oklahoma Bar Journal in two parts. We hope that this will give all of you the opportunity to reflect on what it is like to sit "on the other side of the desk" in a law office.

For many lawyers, "the client-centered" law practice must seem like a rather strange topic for an article. You might think your practice and your life already centers on your clients. After all, you may work long hours. You may get up in the middle of the night to go get a client or client's child out of jail. You may spend many sleepless nights worrying about how to solve a client's problem. Your spouse may routinely remind you of the amount of time you devote to work as opposed to your family. You may believe you already devote too many hours to your law practice.

However, this article addresses present and past changes in law practice procedures and traditions, many of which designed for a different era and a different type of client. There can be no doubt whatsoever that people are much different today than they were a few decades ago. They differ in interests, in attitudes and expectations. What satisfied their grandparents and parents may seem woefully inadequate to them. These people are our clients and our future clients. They are generally better educated and have more access to information than any previous generation. They are also more time-challenged. They are more multicultural. They are also much less deferential to authority.

This article also discusses the future of law practice and what lawyers need to know to continue to be client-centered. Lawyers are inundated with a flood of new rules, regulations, statutory changes, court opinions, and methods of procedure. In addition, lawyers have had to deal with enormous changes in law office technology and methods of information processing. The Internet, fax machines, and e-mail have greatly changed perceptions about access to information and the speed of business discussions.

Few law offices have taken the time for a top-to-bottom review of the office procedures and whether changes can be implemented to make the law office more "user friendly" or "client friendly." Nevertheless, every law office, in fact every business, must make time for these types of evaluations or run the risk of falling behind a competitor, whether another lawyer or a non-lawyer legal information provider.

This article, therefore, asks the following questions: How can you determine what changes are right for your law firm? How can you find time to implement them? What effect would a new style of practice have on billing, marketing, or core law-firm operations? In short, the phrase "client-centered law practice" means that the approach to any decisions about your business operations, present and future, should focus on the most important people -those who, if absent from the scene, would mean that you have no law practice at all. It is all about the clients.

How is the Service?

The phrase "legal services" is primarily an economic classification. Lawyers deliver services as opposed to goods. Nothing tangible rolls off an assembly line. The things lawyers do for clients are intangibles. A divorce is not a piece of paper. The divorce decree is the written documentation of the divorce, which is an intangible thing, like judgments, verdicts, business entities, and many of the other areas of our practices.

As well as the legal services, another important part of the lawyer's success has to do with the client services. Although they may appear to be the same, they are not. Have you ever eaten in a restaurant where the food was really good, but the service was terrible? How did the poor service reflect on your overall view of the restaurant? Can the service be so poor that it overpowers the positive effect of the great food? Have you ever had a order lost? What is your emotional reaction to bad service? What about the converse?

Is there a local restaurant you frequent where the food is perhaps average, but the service is top notch? There's nothing like warmly being greeted as you walk into a restaurant, being called by name and being made to feel welcome. The owners or servers may laugh and joke with you. They may ask you about your children and be quite sincere about an interest in them. They refill your drink before you have to ask. Great service may make up for average food. However, if you were entertaining the general counsel of your biggest client visiting from out of state, would you take them there? Probably not.

You can have a superior work product and a superior result for the client, but that is only half of the battle-the "technical quality" part. Service quality is another thing entirely. The superior lawyer strives to prevail on both aspects of the relationship. The problem is that you do not get to judge that part of the equation; only the clients do. Their opinion of your service is all that matters. If your opinion is that you are not really delivering the best client services possible, you can only imagine what some of your clients may be thinking.

When Perception is Reality

Implementation of a client-centered law practice rests on the understanding that the client is the sole judge of how good your law firm service was for their situation. You know you cannot please everyone. Many clients will be unhappy about having to be involved with the legal process. Many clients were forced to hire a lawyer due to events outside of their control. They may believe that they did everything right or "should" have the right to behave as they did. They may have a bad attitude. However, all of that does not matter. They are the sole judges of your practice for their matters as surely as the trial judge is the sole decision-maker when ruling on your case in litigation. The only difference is that with disgruntled clients, there is no appeal, so their perception is truly your reality.1 It is the clients' perceptions that will result in either future referrals or, perhaps, a future bar complaint.

Clients tend to base their perceptions of their lawyers on many things that were not covered in law school. Your brief may have been letter perfect and opposing counsel may have had an inaccurate statement of the law, but this may blow right by the client. On the other hand, if the receptionist is snooty or you always sound like you are trying to get rid of your clients when you are talking with them on the phone, that they will remember!

Just as in the example of poor service in the restaurant, things that may be accorded great weight are the tone of a receptionist's voice, the amount of time a client is left on hold on the phone, the promptness of returned phone calls, the physical appearance of an attorney's office, or how quickly copies of pleadings and correspondence are routinely mailed to the client. Such factors may contribute more to your client's perception of the quality of services rendered than matters lawyers are trained to consider important. See the graphic of the quality services grid.

Law school training perhaps does not serve lawyers well in this area because lawyers are trained to disregard the irrelevant and focus on only the important facts. However, the so-called relevant facts may not be the most important facts from the client's point of view. To dismiss the client's important facts out of hand as irrelevant is to reinforce many negative stereotypes about the legal profession. Here are a couple of examples.

The lawyer has an initial interview on a wrongful death case where the potential clients are the woman's three surviving children. The most important facts from the standpoint of the case have to do with the cause and manner of death and whether any third party might be found to be negligent. However, the most important and significant fact as far as the clients are concerned is that their mother is dead. We all appreciate that sensitivity is important when discussing items like pain and suffering with them.

A better example might be a divorce case where a spouse has been having an affair. The client may have just recently learned about this and been devastated by the news. The client is likely to be angry and emotional, and may want revenge or to expose the wrongdoing as a primary goal of the case. The client also may have been told by well-meaning, but misinformed, acquaintances that the adultery will have a significant impact on their divorce proceeding in the client's favor. Although courts used to punish parties for adulterous relationships, today, that is not so true under the current state of the law. A lawyer might need to tell the client that the judge will not consider the affair in the proceeding unless it impacted something like family finances or the children's well being. The wrong way to say this may be as follows:

The judge really won't care about affairs. They are so frequent these days that he or she will just disregard it.

Affairs don't really matter any more in the eyes of the law.

You seem very upset and may need to speak to a counselor. I'm not a counselor; I'm just your lawyer.

When the focus is a client-centered law practice, a matter of critical importance to the client must be seen as important to the lawyer as well. You cannot simply brush aside the most important fact in the client's mind and expect the client to dismiss it in the same way. It is just these types of exchanges that cause many clients to tell their friends, "That lawyer doesn't care about me or my case. He's just in it for the money."

This does not mean that you should avoid telling the client about the impact on his or her case. Clearly you should neither promise the client things unlikely to take place nor give the client an incorrect impression about the relevance of certain facts in the case. However, if the client's perception is to be of critical importance, the client-centered lawyer simply must adopt the rule: "If it is very important to my client, then it is very important to me."

In many ways, this is more a change in way lawyers deal with clients and in the method of communication than in the lawyer's advice. Rather than send the message that lawyers and judges do not care, you can acknowledge the client's pain and emotions. Do not tell the client to forget about it, but discuss the matter. Spending a few moments empathizing with the client about an important and traumatic event is not a waste of time. It is important to the client and a relationship-builder. It is a way for you to help the client get past these emotional issues. A more client-centered approach might include some of the following comments, interspersed during a dialogue about the case:

"I really do understand your pain and anger at your spouse. There's nothing more painful than having a family member that you trust lie to you or deceive you. But, there is also nothing any of us can do to undo what has already happened. Your spouse may even regret what was done and feel guilty about it. The court will examine all of the evidence of what has happened previously in your marriage, but when the court reaches a decision it will be looking forward to the future. So, the court might consider the affair when it tells your spouse not to have any overnight visitors of the opposite sex when the children are around. But the court also might order you to abide by those same standards, even though you have done nothing like that in the past. That's because the court is going to more concerned about the future well being of the children and the impact of certain situations on them than it is concerned about the social life of their parents."

Numerous other approaches to this can be tried; the point is to adopt and follow the rule that what is important to your client is important to you.

Most of us are not trained as counselors. It is appropriate to make referrals for those who apparently need professional help. But the fact is that a client retains you to help with a problem. Refusing to discuss parts of the problem may come across as a refusal to help or a lack of caring. You do not need training as a counselor to empathize or sympathize. You do not need training as a professional communicator to examine the impact of your words and how the client might understand them differently than you mean them. Your client-centered practice must be about solving the client's problems and if counselors, accountants or other experts are needed, you should be in a position to easily add them to the client service team with the client feeling abandoned or shuffled off to the side.

1. See Calloway, "Marketing Magic" 71 Oklahoma Bar Journal. (Aug. 5, 2000); and Part II at 23 (Sept. 9, 2000). This article discusses the beneficial effect that satisfied clients can have on your law practice, as well as the negative effect that disgruntled clients can have.

Read Part 2 of this article in the Feb. 14 issue of the Oklahoma Bar Journal.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- Jan. 17, 2004 - Vol. 75, No.2