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Law Management Section

Silver service

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Clients are rarely able to judge you on how well you know the law, but they can judge you on how well you look after them: your opening hours, how your reception looks, the clarity of your communications. Kerry Underwood offers his tips for top-quality client service

Solicitors’ client care levels are far better than they were when I started work 42 years ago. Speed of service, clarity of communication, transparency of costs and effective complaints handling are now all taken seriously by most firms. That was not always the case.

Do the senior people in your organisation spend as much time and energy on core quality standards as they do on billing targets? If not, why not? Quality is far more important. Give a consistently high-quality service at an affordable price, and the work will follow.

Clients with a one-off purchase in a ‘high ticket’ matter of great importance to them will be guided by matters other than price. Prioritising client care will help improve your firm’s reputation and make it a place which other lawyers wish to join, and in due course, take over. But how can you make it a reality?

1. Lead by example

Don’t expect junior staff to have service levels that the decision-makers are not prepared to observe. For example, I never managed to time-record centrally and properly, so we have scrapped it. None of the ideas below are expensive or difficult to implement, but they do require a culture that every member of the firm buys into, especially decision-makers and senior lawyers.

2. Be clear

Have clear, objectively measurable standards that mean something to clients. Concepts such as whether a matter has been progressed satisfactorily have their place, but are open to interpretation.

We have the following four core promises. They appear in a one-page opening letter, as well as in the much longer client care letter.

  1. We will see you within five minutes of your appointment time or your arrival in the office, whichever is later.
  2. We will contact you each calendar month to tell you how your case is progressing.
  3. If you telephone us before 3pm, we will return your call within three hours.
  4. Any email received from you by 3pm will be answered the same day.

These are easily measurable by clients and also by the firm, through its audit process. We pay £100 each and every time any of these four core promises is not met.

3. Mean It

Do the senior people in your organisation spend as much time and energy on core quality standards as they do on billing targets? If not, why not? Quality is far more important. Give a consistently high-quality service at an affordable price, and the work will follow.

Do you pay bonuses on client service levels rather than, or as well as, on billing levels?

Reward success against your targets. We audit 10 files per month per lawyer on specific measurable items. If you get 100 per cent, you get a bottle of champagne or the equivalent. This has become a matter of pride, not policing, for our lawyers. Again, it is important that all senior people are included in the audit and are performing. Consider publishing the audit results on your website, for maximum transparency.

4. Make it easy for clients

Make it easy for them to contact you. A 24/7 phone line and opening on evenings and Saturday mornings are easy, cheap and productive, but few firms have these facilities.

And make it easy for them to visit you. All of us are capable of finding excuses not to do things we are worried about. Many clients would rather go to the dentist than see a lawyer. Try to make the process less painful for them to take that first step, perhaps by:

  • informing them about parking arrangements;
  • sending them AA or Google Maps directions and/or public transport options from their home to your office;
  • offering to pay for a taxi from the railway station to the office; or offering to pick them up.

I prefer to see clients at our office rather than at their home – with their dog peeing on me and the TV on etc – so I am surprised at how many firms offer home visits, but pay so little attention to the much simpler job of enabling clients to come to the office.

5. Make your space client-friendly

The only rooms your clients will normally see are reception, the toilet and the meeting room, often in that order. Make an effort with each of them.

Think about your reception area from the client’s perspective. Visit any doctor’s surgery to see what they do, and then do exactly the opposite!

Your receptionist should be warm, smiling, welcoming and reassuring. Have the best coffee in town and have the coffee-maker in reception for visitors to use. Put out nice clean cups, snacks, paper napkins, fruit juice, water etc.

Think very carefully about decoration. Nothing is less welcoming than a gloomy, poorly lit, untidy reception area with hard chairs. Light colours, plenty of light, comfortable sofas and the smell of coffee create a very different impression. We have framed Buddhist posters, one of which bears the message ‘Quiet in the land’. The space should be a warm and welcoming haven of peace for people likely to be nervous and dealing with a matter of utmost importance to them.

If possible, have a play area for children, and someone who can supervise them while the parent is in a meeting.

And your toilets should always be clean, with soap and clean towels!

6. Make the best first impression

Take extra care with your first meeting with a new client.

Ensure that the meeting room is warm – literally – and welcoming. If you have space, have two types of meeting room: one with a table for more formal meetings, and one with sofas and no table.

Take as long as it takes. Time-recording bean counters may tell you that this is inefficient. Rubbish. There is nothing efficient about having to pay or advertise for work because you cannot get it in on reputation. Those two or three hours with a new client building their loyalty and that of their family and friends is the most valuable time you will ever spend.

Ensure that every 45 minutes or so, someone pops in to see if any more tea or coffee is needed. If the meeting takes place around lunchtime, offer to buy sandwiches.

Your attire for meetings should be smart and professional. Many lawyers complain about lack of respect from clients, yet dress sloppily and have untidy and unwelcoming offices where the client seems to be an unwelcome distraction, rather than the lifeblood of the business. I once threw our (former) accountant out for coming in to my office looking scruffy. For him, it was dress-down Friday – for me, it was an embarrassment waiting to happen, if any of my clients or staff saw him. He lost our business as a result.

7. Weed out difficult clients

Difficult cases I love, difficult clients I do not. They are never worth it. Each client is spoken to first by a solicitor on the phone, to try to judge what the client will be like. Keep an eye out for red alerts, where a client:

  • has got your name from an internet search without looking at your website;
  • asks for a free first interview;
  • queries the price;
  • already has a solicitor;
  • is close to the limitation period;
  • suggests that the case will raise your profile; or
  • says that if you handle this instruction well, they will have other work for you.

8. Keep in touch – in an appealing way

No one, but no one, is interested in your ground-breaking case on the White Fish and Ancillary Matters Regulations, not even the client you are acting for.

Prize draws, social events, auctions etc catch clients’ interest. Consider having a prize draw in every newsletter – for example, if they press the reply button, they will automatically get entered into a draw for dinner for two at a local restaurant. That gets the newsletter read, and allows you to get across something about the firm that will matter to them, such as evening and Saturday opening.

9. Handle costs with care

Lawyers are expensive – and should be. Do not apologise and do not go downmarket. Explain to the client the fully comprehensive insurance that they are getting.

Reassurance and certainty about costs are important. For example, in litigation, everything is moving towards fixed costs and contingency fees. That introduces certainty, which clients like, and should mean that firms compete on quality rather than price.

But the ethical danger is the temptation to under-settle and thus get out early for a quick fee for little work. Thus a claim of £5,000 is being done on a 25 per cent contingency fee, and if it goes the distance, will take 30 hours. Settling for £4,000 after 10 hours’ work is far better for the solicitor than earning another £250 – 25 per cent of £1,000 – for another 20 hours’ work.

In fact, most clients prefer to settle early for less, but reassurance is still critical. My firm has an appeals process for clients in any contingency or fixed-fee case, whereby they can appeal, at our expense, to a named QC, and we will abide by their decision. So if we have settled for £4,000 and the QC thinks that the case is worth £5,000, we pay the extra £1,000, plus the QC’s costs.

10. Communicate clearly

The telephone is the best tool in the office. More can be got out of one phone call than an exchange of 20 emails. When you do write, write in language that is easy for any client to understand. Few lawyers now deliberately use jargon to show how clever they are; happily, that is a thing of the past. Nevertheless, an email that a client has trouble understanding is upsetting and demoralising for them.

It is very easy to see how clear a written communication is: just use the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease test (by copying and pasting the whole piece into readability-score.com). This generates a score for a piece of writing, based on the number of words in a sentence, and syllables in a word. We always aim to have a score of 60 or over, which means that it can be understood by a normal 13- to 15-year-old.

For a higher score, avoid long sentences and paragraphs with sub-sections broken out by semi-colons, brackets etc. Short punchy paragraphs with no jargon always score well.

This piece scored 68.3 on the Flesch-Kincaid Test.

Make it happen

We have implemented all of these ideas successfully. None involves spending tens of thousands of pounds on software systems etc.

And actually, the simple things – tea, coffee and taxis – are worth far more to most clients. Clients are rarely able to judge you on how much you know about the law, but they can judge you on all these other things.

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