Seven things you should know about what clients think

Issue March/April 2017 By John O. Cunningham

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 out.

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:

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