Setting Client Service Standards

In Taking the Lead, Law Practice Editorial Board member Karen MacKay together with guest authors, tackle the ins and outs of running a law firm, providing expert guidance that every managing partner can use.

Should a leader focus on delivering service and value? Should a leader engage members of the firm in creating the firm's unique value proposition to and for clients?

Is it a leader's role to ensure that members of the firm at all levels deliver on the firm's commitment to service and value?

In short, yes, it is.

Karen MacKay
by Karen MacKay, MBA, CHIC

Preparing for this article, I reviewed the client service commitment of four law firms (Quarles & Brady LLP, Stewart McKelvey LLP, LeClairRyan PC, and Borden Ladner Gervais LLP) and one accounting firm (Deloitte) in an effort to identify the common themes from these leading firms. Their approaches are all different, and the language reflects the unique culture of each firm.

Focusing on service and value

All firms recognize that creating value requires a commitment to understanding each client’s needs and expectations. The client might be an individual, a business owner, a general counsel, a board of directors or a member of management—each having different needs and expectations. So understanding the client’s business and its decision-making landscape is critical to delivering service as the client requires it and value as the client defines it.

Quarles & Brady LLP cites the Client Value Standards set out by the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC). Aligning with the ACC’s value challenge supports a firm that is perhaps designed to serve business clients. This reinforces that the client’s objectives and expectations are at the top of the hierarchy of needs.

Stewart McKelvey commits to delegating the work to the right desk based on “expertise and experience appropriate to both the nature and complexity of the matter.” Borden Ladner Gervais states that it is committed to collaboration and to bringing the best possible use of the firm’s collective resources to the client. These are similar commitments but expressed and perhaps executed differently as matters are staffed.

A firm's unique value proposition

All of the client service statements reviewed for this article commit to communicating with clients. Deloitte will “establish effective communications;” Quarles & Brady will “communicate from the perspective of a business partner, not a vendor;” Stewart McKelvey “will keep you informed of all significant developments;” BLG will “communicate proactively and regularly;” and LeClairRyan will "over-communicate... and listen first."

While these all claim, in their own words, to ensure that the professionals in their firm are at the top of their games and delivering service with the highest levels of quality, ethical standards and confidentiality, take a look at the mission statement of LeClairRyan.

Practical solutions and a sense of urgency are stressed, but check out “We Go for the ‘WOW!’ Reaction.” They want their client’s reaction to be:

  1. “Wow, my lawyer is an expert in this area of the law!” Read: quality and expertise

  2. “Wow, my lawyer is really on top of my matter!” Read: communication and project management

  3. “Wow, my lawyer is really a great person with whom to work!” Read: treating clients with respect, like business partners

This covers many of the ideas in the client service standards expressed by the other great firms—but it also is unique.

Delivering service and value

When other firms develop and publish such service commitments, there are those who believe your firm should, too. This approach feels like an “initiative” or “a project.” Be cautioned:

Developing a client service commitment will be most successful when the firm designs its commitments to meet the needs of its unique client base.

Developing client service standards that your people have a hand in creating— attorneys, paralegals, assistants and the myriad supporting cast members who interact with your clients and with you—keeps members of your firm engaged. But defining standards that fit your firm is one thing; thinking through how each of the cast members will actually deliver services is quite another.

Here’s how Stephen Mabey, COO of Stewart McKelvey LLP, describes it:

“We first identified our core commitment to our clients and then we launched 'Service First' throughout the organization, with focus groups at all levels documenting specifically how each member of the firm could and would deliver on each of our nine service standards. We knew that buy-in at all levels was critical if we were to institutionalize these standards. It is critical to avoid thinking that these standards only apply to part of the service delivery team and not all of it.”

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Leaders who meet with clients and handle client dissatisfaction effectively walk the talk and lead by example. Leaders have a unique perspective, experience and gut instinct. If articulating and communicating your firm’s unique value proposition is a key part of your strategic planning, focus on what best fits your firm and its clients, and make it unique, reflecting your firm and engaging its people.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2012 edition of Law Practice magazine, a publication of the American Bar Association. Copyright © Phoenix Legal