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Don’t let clients play the waiting game

Customer service takes on greater importance in law
By Grant Cameron
August 26 2016 issue

When it comes to running a law practice, providing solid legal advice is, without doubt, an essential ingredient for success. After all, clients these days expect nothing less from their lawyers.

However, legal skills will only take you so far. To keep clients happy, lawyers must also incorporate some sort of palatable bedside manner and beef up their customer service skills.

Those who’ve started their own legal businesses or law practices maintain that, in addition to doing good work, lawyers need to develop a personal connection with clients, be honest and respectful, provide timely communications and ensure expectations are clear.

“I think people are looking for somebody that they can communicate well with,” says Julie Stanchieri, founder of Stanchieri Family Law in Toronto. “They don’t want to be talked down to and they want somebody to not be abrupt with them but answer their questions.

“Our job is to generally tell people what we think they should do. But in doing that, you have to be as respectful as possible. Nobody wants to be talked down to or yelled at so we always try to be respectful and polite in whatever communications that we’re having.”

Part of being respectful, Stanchieri explains is keeping clients up to date with timely communications and letting them know when there is a development in their case or file — good or bad.

“Returning phones calls is a huge deal. We always try to get back to people within 24 hours. I’m always surprised because sometimes I meet people who’ve had different lawyers and they’ve tried for weeks to get hold of their lawyer and there was no response.”

Timothy Sullivan of SullivanLaw in Ottawa says lawyers must stay on top of files and provide timely communications to their clients, which includes returning phone calls and e-mails or acknowledging their requests, and clearly explain to them any developments.

“Don’t let it languish. If something’s not calling for an answer, fine, but just respond to a telephone call with an e-mail saying, ‘Thanks,’ or ‘I received your telephone call, thanks,’ or even send an e-mail that says, ‘I received your message,’ and if there’s something issued from the court like a new date or something get that to the client as soon as possible.”

While personal service is important, there is a caveat. Sullivan says lawyers can’t be all things to all people and must assign tasks to administrative staff to be more cost effective.

“Providing personal service, I think, is very important because people hire a lawyer, not a law firm. But you can’t do all things for all clients.”

For example, Sullivan usually meets face-to-face with clients during an intake but often has his assistant prepare affidavits and other types of documents because it saves the client money.

“I give them my contact information, my assistant’s contact information, e-mail and extension and I explain to them that it’s better to have my assistant take on some administrative tasks.”

On the other hand, Sullivan says it’s better for him to deal with the client directly when it comes to a legal issue.

Lucas Litwiniuk, co-founder of Toronto-based KabukLaw, an online marketplace that connects clients with legal providers, says communication is the key, especially when it comes to making sure the client understands the expectations and cost of a legal proceeding.

When someone goes to a doctor, they get a pill. The expectations are clear and the person monitors their own progress, but with a lawyer it’s a totally different ballgame as clients often don’t see the behind-the-scenes work that goes into preparing for a case, he says.

“When you talk to a lawyer, they go away and work on their own. There’s this information asymmetry as to what you want from the lawyer and what the lawyer is doing.”

Therefore, he says, lawyers need to make sure their clients are aware of the work they’re putting in.

From his interactions with lawyers, Sullivan has found that the biggest problem is around the fees that are charged because clients often don’t understand that a lawyer must first figure out a strategy to deal with an issue before going to work on a legal case.

Another challenge, he says, is finding ways to update a client while keeping expenses down because if a lawyer charges $400 an hour it would cost a client $100 for a 15-minute update.

Litwiniuk believes “frictionless communication” will soon be used to keep clients abreast of developments on their files.

“It’s just a matter of time before the billing software will start sending out updates to clients saying, ‘Listen, this or that work has been done on your case.’ We’re probably going in that direction.”

When a customer, for whatever reason, is dissatisfied, Stanchieri says legal staff should always be open to hearing the concern and, if it’s valid, takes steps to fix the problem.

“That could include taking some steps to correct actually what has occurred or crediting them some money on their next bill, but listening is the key.”

Sometimes, it turns out that the client doesn’t have all the information.

“A client may say, ‘I’m concerned about this or that,’ but then when we talk through the issue they really didn’t understand what had happened,” she says. “It’s good that we talk about it because there might be some missing information or something that we can clarify.”

If it’s a concern about fees, lawyer Sullivan says he arranges a face-to-face meeting with the client.

“When the complaint comes in that, ‘The bill looks a little more complicated than I’m used to,’ I sit down and explain it to the client without tracking the time because I want them to understand it. It’s an investment that I make in the client so the client knows what’s going on.”

Litwiniuk of KabukLaw says opposing lawyers sometimes play games and proceedings might get drawn out as a result, resulting in more fees for clients.

“A client might push back because they feel it’s taking too long or costing them too much and they wonder where the end result is and sometimes it’s not really the lawyer’s fault.”

If a client can’t be satisfied, Litwiniuk says it’s sometimes better to give ground, as social media has made it easier to conduct a smear campaign.

“You sometimes have to bite the bullet. It’s sometimes better to back off and give them what they want even if it costs me money because a smear campaign over the Internet might cost me a lot more down the road.”

Click here to see this article in our digital edition (available to subscribers).