Three Basic Questions: A Roadmap to Client Satisfaction

Originally published for Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute on March 31, 2015

Achieving client satisfaction requires more than doing excellent legal work and reaching a satisfactory outcome. It requires the lawyer to deliver service in a way that meets the needs and expectations of the client and for a fee commensurate with the value of the service delivered.

That’s why a lawyer should answer three basic questions at the outset of every engagement:

  1. What is the legal service the client wants delivered?
  2. What is the value to the client of that legal service?
  3. How do I deliver that service for a fee that matches its value?
     

1. The Desired Service

This would seem to be a simple question, but it is not. The lawyer readily recognizes the legal issues in any engagement and is ready to address them. The client, however, seeks legal service in the context of business issues. Important as the legal issues are, they are incidental to the business issues.

One of the most common complaints corporate clients express about legal service is its failure to be tailored to what they need. The advice they receive is often seen as too general, theoretical, and conservative—and not adequately grounded in the real world of client decision-making.

The lawyer should do whatever it takes to understand what service the client actually wants delivered. Not what the lawyer thinks the client should ask for, but what the client is, in fact, asking for.

In most cases, this will require a focused conversation with the client at the outset of the engagement. This may not be a short or linear discussion. The client may not have a clear answer. The answer will often emerge from the exchange of perspectives of the lawyer and the client. But some version of this exchange needs to be part of any matter intake.

The most successful lawyers, the ones who achieve the “trusted advisor” status, always know the answer to this question at the outset. This is part of the reason they become trusted advisors. Clients trust them to deliver what they need.

2. The Value of the Service

What is the legal service worth? This question isn’t simple, either.

There is no objectively correct answer. The value of the legal service will turn on a number of variables which are often very different from each other. They will commonly include: How much is at stake? How much difference does the legal service make in the outcome? How scarce is the ability to deliver the particular service? What are the reasonable costs that the lawyer must incur to deliver the service? (One answer that is not likely to be correct is the product of the number of hours a lawyer spends on the issue times his/her hourly billing rate.)

While there will not be a precise measure, the lawyer should always assess this question at the outset. The more the lawyer is able to agree explicitly with the client on the value, the better.

3. Matching the Fee to the Value

The third question is actually the most difficult for most lawyers today. Particularly, for the experienced lawyer who has developed a way of doing things over the years which he or she knows will get the job done.

There are two reasons this question is hard. First, traditional methods of delivering service have become very expensive. With the cost of the traditional law firm model, the complexity of the law, and the magnitude and complexity of data, the cost to the lawyers and the fees to the client can become very high very fast.

Equally important, lawyers now have new tools and methods at their disposal that can produce better service for less cost than the traditional methods. Engagements can be separated into parts and completed by different people. Instead of using only very expensive partners and associates, less expensive personnel can be used. Technology can do increasing amounts of the work, such as initial document review and document drafting. Specialized third parties are available to collaborate by doing segments of the work, with reliable quality and lower cost.

Employing these other options requires more process design and planning than just rounding up a team the old fashioned way. And it requires different management skills. Those are among the reasons this third question is not asked often enough.

I believe it is the duty of a lawyer to embrace today’s options and actively pursue the course that delivers the service the client wants and needs, both for an internal cost to the lawyer/law firm and at a fee to the client that is reasonable in light of the value of the service delivered. It certainly is in the client’s best interest.

In the long run, it is better for the lawyers and the law firms, as well.

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