In The Client-Centered Law Firm: How to Succeed in an Experience-Driven World, author Jack Newton, CEO and co-founder of Clio, a cloud-based legal technology company, argues that legal service providers need to adopt a more tailored, focused delivery of their services to clients to match the expectations of the modern consumer. He cites examples of successful businesses, such as Netflix, Amazon, and Airbnb, that focus on providing exactly what customers want and making their experience as effortless as possible. Empathizing with the client, identifying what the client really wants, and providing services geared toward those wants — which Newton refers to as the “client-centered approach” — are good for the client, good for the legal profession, and good for business.
The author stresses that the modern consumer wants an effortless experience, citing The Effortless Experience: Conquering the New Battleground for Customer Loyalty, by Matthew Dixon, Nick Toman, and Rick DeLisi. Those authors surveyed 97,000 customers to determine which factors influence loyalty. Interestingly, they found that exceeding customers’ expectations makes virtually no difference in customer loyalty. Instead, they found that the primary factors affecting customer loyalty are related to customer effort. The more effort customers have to expend to obtain or use a service, the less loyalty they have to the brand.
Newton also points out that modern businesses succeed when they know what customers want and act accordingly. Technological improvements and access to information have shifted customer expectations, as you no doubt have experienced in your practice when clients tell you what they read on the internet or ask why they should pay you to draft their estate plan rather than buy a simple document online and complete it themselves.
The experience of successful businesses Newton cites demonstrates the virtues of these principles. Netflix succeeded because it provided customers with a way to have movies, television programs, and other entertainment media mailed to their homes via a simple subscription format. Early Netflix customers never had to leave their homes to go to Blockbuster, had access to an extensive media library, and weren’t disappointed to learn upon arrival at a Blockbuster location that the only copies of the movie they wanted were already rented. Blockbuster kept its brick-and-mortar stores and didn’t change the consumer experience it offered, whereas Netflix improved the customer experience, gave customers exactly what they wanted, and grew into the giant it is today.
Newton argues that law firms also need to use this approach and make the client experience as effortless as possible. Lawyers tend to think of the legal profession as unique. Of course, in ways it is, but clients often see the profession as just another service provider and expect members of the profession to provide the quality customer service and experience they get from other service providers. Further, he cites worrisome statistics regarding how client expectations actually differ from the way attorneys perceive them.
Of course, lawyers usually don’t have the advantage of meeting clients during a happy time in their lives. In elder and special needs law, an estate plan might be a necessary evil for a client, the need for estate administration signifies the loss of a loved one, and the need for disability planning means the receipt of an unfortunate diagnosis and thus the need to navigate the maze of insurance and government benefits. We can do nothing to stop these from being difficult events. However, by improving the delivery of our services and the experience of our clients, we can make the legal aspects of those events go as smoothly and as positively as possible.
Not surprisingly, the author suggests technological solutions to optimize clients’ experiences but wisely notes that not all law firms apply these solutions in the same way. Solutions tailored to a particular practice make clients happy because clients obtain the information they want, and the law firm is happy because the solutions free up valuable time for attorneys to work on other projects.
Newton cites several successful law firms that use the client-centered approach. Palace Law, a personal injury law firm in the Tacoma, Washington, area had about 400 clients calling twice a week to see whether their checks had arrived. Obviously, answering such calls is important but far from efficient. To remedy this problem, Palace Law established a text system that lets clients know when their checks are ready. Clients got what they wanted — immediate notification that their checks are ready — and the firm got what it wanted, 800 fewer phone calls.
Ultimately, the advantage of using this approach is improving business. Every firm’s experience is different, but by improving your firm’s internal processes and resources, identifying the wants of your clients, and focusing on the client experience, your firm will boost its reputation, increase the number of repeat clients and referrals, generate better reviews, and increase overall profitability.
It is worth nothing that the client-centered approach is called “client-centered” because it does not mean “client first” nor “the client to the exclusion of all else.” The idea is to tailor services to the client’s experience and wishes, not to do everything in the manner the client wants. Readers might think that focusing on the client means an increase in processes or making them more time-intensive, thus reducing profitability and creating extra stress for staff. However, even simple strategies, such as sending automated email reminders to clients, providing upfront pricing, and offering online forms, are easy and beneficial, unlike more involved strategies that require a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis to determine whether they are worthwhile.
To summarize, the legal profession often adapts to change very slowly. However, as clients’ expectations change, we cannot afford to be resistant. After all, the other lesson of Netflix is that you don’t want to become Blockbuster.
The best way to read this book (as I did) is by taking notes. As the author says throughout, the book should be a call to action. To support that call to action, the author suggests several exercises to help attorneys apply the lessons from the book to their own firms, including ways to encourage implementation and buy-in from firm members. In fact, Part 3, a full third of the book, addresses how to design a client-centered law firm. This part includes ideas on how to identify your clients’ expectations and experiences, how to develop improved processes, how to track your success, and how to better implement solutions.
I thought that the author’s suggestion of going through your law firm’s intake process is an extremely helpful one that provides a good illustration of the suggestions in the book. Newton suggests going through your own intake process from start to finish to build empathy with your clients as they go through that experience. For example, type “estate planner” or a similar term in a search engine. Does your firm’s website come up? Is it at the top? When someone clicks on the website link, is your website easy to read? Do you even have a website? If so, can you find your firm’s contact information quickly, and is there an easy-to-find scheduling link? When prospective clients click on that link, do they have to await an email from a staff person to schedule an appointment? If your prospective clients must complete intake forms, are the forms easy to fill out and return or do prospective clients need to print these forms and scan/mail them back to you after they’re completed? And so on.
As you go through this exercise, did you find the intake process difficult, confusing, or time-intensive? Keep in mind that clients come from a variety of socioeconomic and educational backgrounds and may be enduring health problems and stress from legal or other issues. You, on the other hand, are highly educated and know what information the intake process is designed to obtain. If the process is cumbersome for you, imagine how onerous the process is for your clients. If it is too cumbersome, there is a good chance that many would-be clients end up using another law firm. Improving the intake process for your clients is an example of the client-centered approach.
Finally, I want to offer some specific bits of wisdom from The Client-Centered Law Firm that I think are extremely important. These bits of wisdom are as relevant for experienced, successful attorneys as they are for new attorneys sitting across the table from their first clients.
• What does the client really want? Clients don’t want to buy a will from you, they can do that online. They want to buy a sense of security that their loved ones will be provided for. So tailor the experience and your services to show clients that they have accomplished their goal.
• Little touches show the client empathy. An example the author provided is that if your office is in a hot climate, you should offer a cool drink to clients as soon as they enter your office. We do this at my office in Houston, and our clients very much appreciate it.
• Start somewhere. There are many ways to improve the delivery of legal services, but some may be difficult, costly, or otherwise daunting to implement. So just start somewhere. Even small steps are improvements.
The Client-Centered Law Firm offers many similar excellent suggestions to help your law firm succeed by providing an efficient, tailored delivery of legal services to clients. For those who want to learn how to adapt to the changing landscape of the legal marketplace, this book is worth reading.