Our Top Priority

Looking-ForwardI’ve owned a Dell laptop, in one form or another, for the past seven years.  I don’t have a technical reason for this; I have a customer service one.

I spent the first seven weeks of law school making friends, attending classes, and drafting what were, without a doubt, the world’s most beautiful outlines.  Seriously, my outlines were masterpieces.  I had different colors and fonts and pictures.  Even my links had links.  If they could give awards for outlining, I would have left law school with a significantly higher number of trophies than I currently have (hint: it’s somewhere between zero and none).

Then, it all came crashing down.  Seven weeks of outlining all brought down by a tall, cold glass of water.  At 7pm one night, typing furiously on my Dell 700m, my elbow knocked over my full glass right onto my keyboard.  My computer froze.  I froze.  I’m pretty sure time froze.  I shut my computer down.  I took out the battery.  I waited ten minutes.  Then I pressed the “power” button.  Nothing.  It didn’t even pretend to start up.  Completely freaked out, I made what turned out to be the best decision possible – I called Dell customer service.

The customer service agent was very patient with me.  He calmed me down by first explaining that a dead computer does not equal a dead hard drive.  Then he walked me through a number of steps to see if I could get my computer back and running.  We did those steps.  None of them worked.  But before I could start my freak out again, he said that they’d be sending a technician over to fix my problem.  He took my phone number, told me not to worry and that it would work out OK.

Twenty minutes later, the phone rang.  It was the technician.  He wanted to set up an appointment time for the next day.  We did.  He stopped by my room, looked at the computer, and declared it a complete loss.  The hard drive, however, could still be saved.  He then stayed with me as we called Dell back and explained the problem.  They told me they’d have a new computer out to me by the end of the day.  They did.  Two days later, it arrived in Ann Arbor.  My hard drive worked.  My outlining continued.  And I did not, in fact, end up failing my first year law school.  All thanks to excellent customer service.

Customer service.  In law practice, we call it “client relations” but it’s really two sides of the same coin.  However, the phrase “customer service” would never have occurred to me had I not attended the ISBA Solo and Small Firm Conference in Itasca last week.  The ISBA had offered a special discount to recent law school graduates.  They certainly took advantage of that discount based on the large number of young lawyers who were in attendance.  They were especially out in force at a talk given by Allison Wood.

Formerly with the ARDC, Allison currently runs her own legal ethics consulting company.  The title of her presentation was attention-grabbing: “The One Thing a Solo Practitioner Can Do to Reduce Their Disciplinary or Malpractice Risk.”  Her answer was simple: “focus on customer service.”  She explained that ARDC investigations, and even malpractice actions, often centered on a lack of customer service from the attorney.  If attorneys improved customer service to their clients, the risk of disciplinary actions and malpractice suits would likely decrease significantly.

It was a genius idea.  And I wanted to see if she was right.  After listening to her talk, I hopped over to the ARDC website.  According to the ARDC’s 2011 Annual Report, found here, 40% of all ARDC investigations centered on allegations of neglect.  20% centered on failing to communicate.  In other words, 60% of all ARDC investigations centered, at least in part, customer service complaints.

Allison’s advice was sound.  And it doesn’t just apply to solo and small firm practitioners.  It applies to all lawyers looking to avoid investigations and malpractice.  It should especially resonate with young attorneys just starting out in the profession.  Start good habits early and they will continue for the rest of your career.  So here are are some tips for better customer service:

1.  Call the client back.  I know you’ve been on hold with customer service before.  But which company has the worst service?  The one that leaves you on hold for five minutes?  The one that leaves you on hold for five hours?  How about the one that you call or email and never hear back from?  Or my favorite, the one that transfers you six times then hangs up on you without answering the phone?  Now which company has the best customer service?  How about the one that answers the phone immediately and never leaves you on hold or promises to call back some vague time later?  You know the answer.  Use your own experience with customer service and apply that to your client.   Answer the phone when your client calls.  Reply to his emails.  And most importantly, call the client back.  If he’s called you and you don’t want to call him back because you’re waiting to hear back from the partner or the court, or you have a million other things on your plate and you can’t handle talking to him right now, or you just know he’ll keep till Monday – still, call the client back.  You are your client’s advisor and counselor at one of the most momentous times in his life.  Call the client back.

2.  Listen to your client.  Ever called customer service and the agent assumes she knows what you’re calling about before you even say anything?  Then it takes five minutes of her explaining an answer to a question you didn’t ask before you’re able to interrupt and tell her what the real problem is?  Don’t treat your client like that.  Do you know what your client wants?  Do you know what your client really wants?  Do you know what your client really, really wants?  Those answers can be completely different.  The only person who knows them is your client.  Listen for the answers.

3.  Don’t yell at your client.  Honestly, would you stay online with a customer service agent who was yelling at you?  Respect your client.  Whether he’s Joe from the bar down the street, or Tim, the CEO from Cupertino, CA.  The client deserves every ounce of your respect.   Speaking of respect, don’t type on your phone when he’s talking to you, don’t leave him in the waiting room without checking in on him, don’t send him to voicemail every time he calls, and don’t look impatient when he wants to talk about his life problems.  At least, try not to.

4.  Client first.  Friend second.  The good customer service agents are usually friendly.  But they are never your friends.  Remember that.  The client is a client first, friend second.  Avoid handing out casual friendly advice that someone may take as full legal advice.  You may think it’s, “I ran into Joe at the bar and he asked me about some investment issue he was having.”  Meanwhile, Joe’s already on the phone with his banker telling him to prep documents because his lawyer just gave him some excellent legal advice.   Three days later, Joe loses his life savings and sues you for malpractice.  And you didn’t think of yourself as his lawyer, just his friend.  Get the facts.  Clear conflicts.  Sign an engagement letter. Treat a client like a client and at the end of the day, you’ll have both a client and a friend.

5.  Don’t promise what you can’t deliver.  Let’s say my Kindle broke.  I call Amazon.  The Amazon agent promises me that he’ll replace by old broken Kindle with a new 2012 Kindle Fire HD in two days.  Two days later I call Amazon back and ask where my new Kindle Fire HD is.  The agent stumbles over an apology saying that (1) the new Kindle Fire HD doesn’t even come out till November, and (2) oh right, my warranty wouldn’t cover it anyway.  I’m mad because Amazon promised me something that they couldn’t deliver.  You promise your client a million-dollar victory even though you know better.  He gets nothing.  Guess who he blames first?  And trust me, your client has a lot more recourse against you than I would against Amazon.

Customer service.  Making it your top priority will go a long way toward reducing your chances of ARDC investigations and malpractice suits.  So try it out.  See where it takes you.  It may just turn a one-time client into a customer for life.

Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism
After spending seventeen years living in the Caribbean, Michelle undertook a number of around-the-world detours before ending up at the doorstep of the Commission, including four years as a general litigator in New York and Chicago. She remembers pretty much everyone she’s met in her travels but she would especially like to meet again the passengers on a January 2001 flight from Miami to JFK. At the pilot’s request, they donated enough money for Michelle, who had her wallet stolen, to get back to college safely. She would very much like to tell them all thanks.
Michelle Silverthorn

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

Former Diversity & Education Director at Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism
After spending seventeen years living in the Caribbean, Michelle undertook a number of around-the-world detours before ending up at the doorstep of the Commission, including four years as a general litigator in New York and Chicago. She remembers pretty much everyone she’s met in her travels but she would especially like to meet again the passengers on a January 2001 flight from Miami to JFK. At the pilot’s request, they donated enough money for Michelle, who had her wallet stolen, to get back to college safely. She would very much like to tell them all thanks.
Michelle Silverthorn

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