By Bob Glaves | CBF Executive Director
In my June post, I suggested we should look at our profession and the market for legal services by putting ourselves in our own shoes when we look for other professional services. So what does that look like? I raised the questions in June. Now I’ll give my best shot at answering them.
To preface, I endorse Groucho Marx’s famous line that he would not want to belong to a club that would have him as a member. I have no illusions that the way I see the world is going to be or should be the same for anyone else. So with that in mind, please read on with your own answers in mind and consider how we all could use our own customer lenses to improve the market for legal services and thereby improve access to justice.
How do you find a professional service when you need it? How do you like to feel and be treated when you walk into a doctor’s office, hospital or other professional office?
The normal way I and most people I know start out to find a professional service when I don’t already have a go to person is to ask around among friends and colleagues. So when my original general practice doctor retired a few years back, I asked around the office and among some of my friends, and got a recommendation that worked out to be a good one.
However, the recommendation I received was based only on a surface-level estimation of his skills as a doctor. To this day, I know mostly the same things I knew then: that the doctor has all the right certifications and seems to know what he is talking about, his office is convenient for me to get to, and his advice and treatment strategy always seem very practical. But neither I nor my recommending colleague have the capacity to evaluate him the way we would be able to if we were medical experts, which puts us in the same boat as the great majority of the public when they are looking for a lawyer to help them.
So what was the recommendation of this doctor based upon, and why do I recommend the same doctor to others now?
The main reason essentially boils down to his communication and customer service skills. He recognizes that this is far from my favorite thing to do even when I am there for a routine checkup, and that is even more true when it is an injury or other immediate health issue causing me concern. He is responsive and has the proverbial good bedside manner, and he takes time to explain his diagnoses and advice in practical laymen’s terms. And when I have needed it, his advice and treatment has seemed to be on target from my non-expert perspective.
This isn’t unique to my experience with doctors. With any professional service, the basic tenets of communication and good customer service are perhaps even more important than in other contexts: whatever advice or services they receive, people remember how you made them feel.
A great article in the Illinois Bar Journal recently, Mapping Your Client’s Journey, features Josh Kubicki, the chief strategy officer for Seyfarth Shaw LLP. Building off Josh’s larger points there (which I encourage you to check out), every lawyer should look at their practice through the eyes of a potential client looking for legal help, from the time they become clients to the conclusion of the representation. Take a look at how you can make that journey more like the way you would want to be treated if the shoe were on the other foot.
Where do you look and what do you look for? How do you know if the professional is any good at what they do?
When the word of mouth approach with friends and colleagues doesn’t yield a satisfactory recommendation, then what?
For the house where I live on the northwest side, we recently encountered that fun time when we knew we needed work on our roof. We didn’t know yet whether that was a repair job, a new layer of shingles, or a full tear-off job, and we did not have any connections to a roofer.
So we went on the internet to see who did that work in our area and what we could find out about them. Transparency was the first key: did the company have a website where we could find basic information about their services, their experience, whether they have the appropriate licenses and insurance, and whether they had any relevant outside endorsements, recommendations, or certifications?
Specifically, for this kind of service a big criteria was whether they had a good rating from the Better Business Bureau and any other endorsements from networks like Angie’s List that are based on objective feedback and criteria.
Next came price. Since we didn’t know the extent of the work we needed and they wouldn’t be able to know that without looking at it, we didn’t expect them to have fixed fee quotes on their website. But there should at least be clear information on the roofer’s website about how pricing is established. And we did expect that after they came out and looked at the house and identified the work involved, they would be able to give us a fixed price quote in writing that we could compare to quotes from other companies if we wanted to shop around.
And finally, customer service again was critical. If they did not get back to us in a reasonable amount of time after we contacted them, it would have been the end of that inquiry. Once they did so, we wanted to make sure they explained how their process worked, how long it would take, whether they offer any guarantees and otherwise stand by their work, and what they would need from us.
Do you like committing to work with a professional when you don’t know what it is going to cost?
In short, the answer is no. Like most people, I am on a budget both at home and at the CBF. While there is some give in there for the unexpected situations that are sure to arise in life, as much as possible when that happens, I want to be able to have a fixed idea of what those extra costs are going to be and try to plan for them.
Continuing with our roofing example, getting a fixed quote was integral to making the deal, and we also wanted to have realistic payment options. In this instance, half up front and half on completion was what we settled on. A few years before when we needed a new heating and air system, we appreciated the option to pay it gradually on a monthly basis over several years even though that would entail a higher overall cost in the end. The certainty of a payment we could gradually work into the budget instead of paying the full amount all at once made it worth it to us to pay more over time.
For the roof job, we knew there also were going to be potential variables that weren’t foreseeable at the time we made the initial deal. For example, if in the midst of the job our roof was hit by lightning that caused significant damage, it would have required additional work not contemplated in our original deal and thus additional cost to us. On the other hand, if the work had ended up taking an extra day beyond what they initially projected for reasons they could have foreseen, it would be a risk of doing business for the roofer they should have factored in to their original price, not additional charges for us.
Using Our Own Experiences to Improve Access
Chances are your clients and potential clients value similar things. In sum, a few themes stand out here that would improve access to legal services for people in need.
- Prioritizing communication and great customer service is one of the easiest and most important things we can do as lawyers to make our services more accessible and welcoming to people who are looking for legal help.
- Consider the way you like to be treated when you contact or walk into a doctor or other professional’s office (in the real or virtual sense). As much as possible, make it like you would want to see it if you were on the other side.
- While the self-defeating limits on marketing and advertising in the current Rules of Professional Conduct make it unnecessarily difficult for associations or networks to vouch for a lawyer’s professional abilities, do what you can to make it easy for potential clients to see your credentials and get other relevant information about your services on your website (e.g, how to contact you, your pricing approach, etc.).
- Potential clients, whether individuals or small businesses, are usually on a budget just like you are. If they have to spend unbudgeted funds to address a legal issue, you can expect they are going to want to have a fixed idea of what that is going to cost. Be honest, would you prefer that approach, or would you prefer to pay by the hour not knowing how much it will be? If you are still billing by the hour, give it up and start using more predictable, transparent and value-based pricing!
These themes may seem obvious, but at least for the consumer and small business markets for legal services, too often they still are more the exception than the rule. Using our own lenses of what we like to see when we buy other types of services will help bridge that gap.