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You work late nights for your clients, take their calls on the weekend, lose your hair over their divorces and labor disputes and contract negotiations. You fight hard, obtain favorable outcomes, and even reduce their bills every once in a while.
Certainly, you have a client-centered practice, right? Maybe not. Here's why.
Legal Services vs. Client Services
Creating a client-centered practice requires more than just being good at lawyering. You have to be good at working with clients as well, and the two are not one and the same.
Think of this as the difference between legal services and client services. On the one hand, you have the legal services you render for clients, be they procuring a favorable verdict, incorporating a business, or putting together estate plans. On the other, you have client services, the way you relate to and treat the client. This covers everything from the tone of your secretary to how quickly you respond to client emails to whether you allow a client's input on legal strategy.
Jim Calloway, who has been advocating for client-centered practices for years, illustrates these two roles by comparing a law practice to a restaurant, whose success is based both on the quality of the food, the actual product sold, and the quality of the service. The best food in town can be ruined by terrible service, while mediocre fare can be elevated by an attentive waiter or pleasing ambiance. In the end, both determine how satisfied a customer will be.
The same goes with your firm. Good legal services, like good food, aren't enough on their own. "Implementation of a client-centered law practice," Calloway writes, "rests on the understanding that the client is the sole judge of how good your law firm service was for their situation."
How to Put the Client at the Center
So, how do you go about creating a client-centered practice? Start by thinking about what it's like to be on the other side of your desk. What experiences will leave a client feeling valued and appreciated? Calloway writes:
Just as in the example of poor service in the restaurant, things that may be accorded great weight are the tone of a receptionist's voice, the amount of time a client is left on hold on the phone, the promptness of returned phone calls, the physical appearance of an attorney's office, or how quickly copies of pleadings and correspondence are routinely mailed to the client. Such factors may contribute more to your client's perception of the quality of services rendered than matters lawyers are trained to consider important.
This can sometimes mean responding to the client's concerns even if they don't align with the most legally important issues. "Spending a few moments empathizing with the client about an important and traumatic event is not a waste of time," Calloway argues. "It is important to the client and a relationship-builder."
The key is to always keep the client at the center, though without forgoing your legal and professional responsibilities. According to Hofstra Law Professor Monroe H. Freedman, "the paramount aspect of client-centered lawyering is paying attention to what the client says, according respect to the client's desires, and, in appropriate cases, advising the client about the morality of particular courses of conduct."
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