For lawyers, "taking care of business" means taking care of
clients. So, it pays to know what your clients really think.
During my years of interviewing clients and reviewing nationwide
client surveys, I have discovered a number of commonly recurring
themes. Below are just seven of the most commonly held opinions
that clients have about lawyers and legal services.
We vote with our feet. A majority of clients
say that they register complaints by leaving. They don't offer
constructive criticism to lawyers unless asked, and if they call
you to complain, it is usually already too late to ask for helpful
criticism. When lawyers don't ask how they are doing from a service
perspective during the course of or at the close of an engagement,
they risk never seeing a client again. In the words of a country
song, "If the phone doesn't ring, you'll know it's me."
If we love you, we'll recommend you. Most
clients say they're happy to make a referral or introduction on
your behalf if they were impressed by your service. If
they decline to make a referral or introduction for any reason, it
does not mean you did a bad job, but you probably did not stand
We need to like you to trust you. Every client
I have ever surveyed said they prefer to like the lawyer they hire
as a person. Over half of clients have told me they must
like you to hire you. Retail consumer clients often presume your
competence, but not your likeability. Corporate clients will gauge
your competence more carefully, but between two competent choices,
they always prefer the lawyer they like. Surprisingly, a sizeable
minority of corporate clients have told me they disliked a lawyer
because they saw the attorney being intentionally or
unintentionally disrespectful or insensitive to someone (often an
employee or opponent).
We want to know you have worked with people like
us. Corporate clients repeatedly say that experience
representing clients in their industry is a key hiring factor. Many
even rank it as the primary hiring factor. Consumer clients
similarly want to know that you have represented people like them
in their situations (i.e., an injured construction worker wants to
know you have represented other injured workers like him).
We want you to talk numbers more than you do.
Most clients and corporate clients in particular, want more
quantitative information than they currently get prior to hiring.
They want to know how many cases you have handled like their case.
They want to know the average length of time to trial, average
costs to get there and the range of likely damages the trier of
fact could award. They want you to talk percentage chances in terms
of outcomes and costs and time. Corporate clients often insist on
forecasts now. One told me: "My company has to do a budget forecast
and timeline to build a complex construction project involving
numerous parties, labor unions, suppliers, weather issues and other
variables. Don't tell me about the unpredictable complexities of a
trial." More than one CEO has told me that they're surprised how
little quantitative information lawyers generally offer. That
creates a huge opportunity for firms that are willing and able to
work harder on the quantitative side while navigating any ethical
boundaries that prohibit the promise of a specific outcome.
We don't want to be forgotten. One of the more
common complaints about legal service is easy to avoid with routine
periodic notices to clients about the status and progress of their
matters. Consumer clients don't know how long it takes to probate
that estate or get to trial for their injuries, and they don't know
what you are doing about it as months and years tick away. They say
they feel forgotten unless they hear from you periodically about
the progress of their matter and what you are doing to bring it to
conclusion. Corporate clients are more likely to call you, but they
prefer proactive communication, provided that it comes without
expensive charges for quick status updates.
We are happy to give you helpful service suggestions if
you ask. While many clients don't want to approach you
about service deficiencies, most say they welcome the following
question from their lawyers: "How are we doing and how can we
improve?" Consumer clients feel it shows respect, and corporate
clients often have cultures dedicated to perpetual improvement, so
they value that question from their service providers. Corporate
clients are constantly surveying their customers about their
service preferences and dislikes so they understand the importance
of that exercise.
John O. Cunningham is a writer, consultant and
public speaker. As a lawyer, he served as General Counsel to a
publicly traded company and to a privately-held subsidiary of a
Fortune 100 company. For more information about his work in the
fields of legal service, marketing, communications, and management,
check out his website and blog at: johnocunningham.wordpress.com.