How Do YOU Define Client Service?

A few years ago, I ran across an article that’s stuck with me titled, “How to Deliver Exceptional Client Service.” Written from the perspective of a web agency, the article starts with the bold-but-obvious thesis that just doing what the client hired you to do isn’t exceptional, nor will it set you apart from your competitors. Consider this:

“You are hired to design and develop a new website for a retail client. The client loves the design, and the pages you develop use the latest in HTML5, CSS3, and responsive design, resulting in a website that works wonderfully across browsers and devices. The e-commerce features of the new website help the client significantly increase their online sales, and the entire project is delivered on time and on budget. Now, is this “exceptional” client service? I don’t think it is.”

Substitute words that are applicable to the kind of legal work you do—you’re hired to negotiate an employment agreement or to handle a divorce or to guide a company through a merger—and you do that, do it well, and do it within the budget the client expects. That’s good client service, sure. But it isn’t, and shouldn’t be, exceptional.

(As a side note, just doing your job in any respect isn’t enough to set you apart from others. That means strategic thinking, responsive communication, and being accessible to your clients won’t distinguish you from other good practitioners. I often urge lawyers to find their points of distinction, and too many count these attributes as extraordinary when they aren’t.)

The article sets out seven ways to uplevel your client service:

  1. Create real relationships. “If we do not engage with our clients in a real, personal way, then we are just another vendor….”
  2. Ask real questions. Connect with your clients.
  3. Participate in more than just projects. Go outside a pure business setting with your clients.
  4. Help them with services that you do not provide. This is where your network supports your business development work: make introductions to help your clients.
  5. Pick up the phone. In today’s environment in which a telephone call may be viewed as an interruption, you’ll want to be careful to equate good communication with a spontaneous telephone call, but the point remains: know how your clients want to receive communications, act accordingly, and do so in a way that builds your relationship.
  6. Face the bad times head-on. How you handle sharing bad news says volumes about you as a practitioner and about how you view your clients and your responsibility to them.
  7. Be thankful and show appreciation. The personal touch is always appreciated, even if it’s not discussed.

Be sure to read the whole article. It’s a quick read, and well worth your time.



Three Obstacles to Business Development Success

Having spoken with thousands of lawyers in the almost 20 years I’ve been consulting, I’ve identified three universal challenges to business development success.  Do any of these sound uncomfortably familiar to you?

1. “I don’t know what to do.”  There’s so much information out there about how to bring in new cases and clients and, even more importantly, how to ensure that your current clients are satisfied — no, delighted — with the service you provide. Sometimes, having lots of good information is overwhelming.  When I work with someone on business development, one of the first things we focus on (after clearly identifying the goal at hand) is to simplify tasks, according to a targeted plan. Don’t flail around and try “the latest thing.” Figure out what works well for you and do it consistently.

2. Mindset challenges. The challenges that we create for ourselves (and please note that I am including myself here!) vary dramatically. I’ve heard all of the following:

  • Business Development is easier for them (men, women, lawyers in big firms, lawyers in small firms, litigators, transactional lawyers, and on and on and on).
  • Everything I do has to be perfect, and I’m busy getting ready to get out there.  (This crops up a lot with lawyers who see speaking, writing, and holding leadership positions in an organization as a good route for business development.)
  • I have to do it all myself, so I’m going to clear the decks and then get started.
  • I’m too young.
  • I’m too old.
  • I tried [insert activity here] and it didn’t work, so why should I bother?
  • My technical skills are so good, that I don’t need to market.

There may be at least a grain of truth to each of these rationalizations (and the infinite variations that exist), but buying into these statements is a huge red flag.  These “reasons” justify a lack of success and perhaps even a lack of effort.  Neither leads to great results.

3. “I don’t have enough time to get my work done and live, and now I should add on business development activities? You’ve got to be kidding me.” This obstacle is the most valid and therefore the most insidious. It also plays into the mindset obstacles, because very often a lawyer who holds a negative belief about client development will sink more and more time into fruitless business development activity. Imagine, for instance, a lawyer who polishes an article to the point of “perfection,” only to find that it’s no longer newsworthy. Fortunately, you can implement three steps to create time for business development: prioritization, systemization, and delegation.

What blocks your business development efforts?

Let’s Talk Professional Development

Every lawyer—associates and partners alike—should have a professional development plan.  Professional development and business development go hand-in-hand for several reasons:

  • Professional development includes identification of strengths (and how to maximize them) and weaknesses (and how to compensate for them). Doing this will help you to work more effectively, work with clients more effectively, and grow as a practitioner.
  • Professional development can help you refine what you want your practice to encompass, the areas of substantive law you want to address, the mix of those areas, the kinds of clients you want to represent, and more. This information is critical for business development because it defines the scope of your activity and offers direction for how your BD activities should be focused.
  • Professional development plans are designed to help you determine your long-term practice goals and how to reach them. Defining the kind of practice you want to have and your role in it will focus your BD activity; it will also ensure that as you take the professional development steps laid out, you’ll be working toward an end result you actually want.
  • Professional development plans can help you uncover the habits, attitudes, and mindsets that will support or retard your success so that you can address them. If you believe, for example, that you are responsible for building your own practice, you’ll be more likely to focus on BD and to implement the plans you set; if you believe that other lawyers in the firm will feed you work, your BD efforts will feel less pressing and you’ll be more likely to let your plans slide. Likewise, excellence is necessary in practice, but perfectionism is often a one-way ticket to paralysis, so you need to know where on the spectrum your tendencies fall. Failing to explore your beliefs about practice and your role in it means you’ll be on unexamined autopilot—and that’s a quick route to disaster.

Once you have a current professional development (and business development) plan in place, it’s time to determine what you’ll choose to focus on from these lists over the next year. For professional development, I recommend a mix of skills/experiences and attitude/habit development goals. For instance, you might set goals of becoming the go-to person on a certain area of the law within your firm and in the outside world, learning how to delegate work effectively to more junior lawyers and to staff members, and getting speaking experience designed to prepare you to speak at a large conference that your ideal clients attend.

Your firm may request you to create a PD and/or BD plan. If so, it’s necessary to use the firm’s approach, and it’s wise to do your own personalized plan or addendum as well. The key difference between your personalized plan and the plan that you may co-create with your firm is that the personalized plan is keyed to your goals without attention to the firm’s goals except to the extent they support your desires.  Your plan should be designed to fit what you — as owner of your practice and “CEO” of your career — want.  The two plans might be identical, or they may be quite at odds.  If you know that in 10 years you’d like to have a personal injury practice with a partner ready and willing to buy you out so you can compete in the America’s Cup, for instance, that’s almost certainly a goal that you’d be wise not to share if you’re working in a mid-sized insurance defense firm because your goals and the firm’s goals don’t mesh.

Summer can be an ideal time to work on your PD and BD plans. You’ll have plenty of time to develop them before year-end conversations with firm leaders, and you’ll be ready to hit the fall running. So, start now.  Set aside time on your calendar, and mark it in ink.  Designing your plans will move you forward like little else.  Don’t miss this opportunity.

Build Your Peer Network

Quick check: how’s the health of your professional peer network?

Lawyers are accustomed to building a network within their firm as a resource for questions about how certain partners work, business development expense reimbursement, and more. And that’s important, particularly for new associates and lawyers who’ve recently made a lateral move or were part of a merger. Fortunately, building such a network generally isn’t difficult. Your practice group likely holds regular meetings, and you can meet others at functions such as all-attorney luncheons. As is true of any kind of networking, your success will depend largely on your follow-up. Issue coffee or lunch invitations, set up a Zoom meeting with lawyers in other offices, and engage in pure social chat as well as professionally-focused conversation.

It’s also useful to build a broader network with peers from other firms or other geographic regions for discussions about issues such as landing a leadership role in a community-based organization and using that exposure to build your network and your professional platform. Especially when the group you connect with is truly your peer group —female associates working in a large law firm, sole practitioners in practice for 7-12 years, lawyers interested in leaving the law — the input from others can suggest new ideas and provide much-needed support.

Wondering how to find a peer group?

  1. Seek out online communities on LinkedIn, Facebook, or other platforms. The benefit to these is clear: you can participate anytime, day or night, and there is little risk of having your identity revealed if you’re careful not to post too many identifying details.  Of course, when you read what others have to say, there’s no way to consider the source of the comment, which may reduce its value.
  2. Explore bar association-sponsored peer groups. Young lawyers’ groups, senior lawyers groups, or law practice management groups are fertile grounds for wide-ranging discussions about how you practice and how to pursue your career goals. You can also join a substantive section for more input on the mechanics of your practice.
  3. Use your network to build your own group. You might start a group of peers with a monthly discussion topic, planning to meet at lunchtime or after work for an hour or so. The ideal group size is 6-12 members, with rotating leadership roles so that no one bears the ongoing responsibility for an agenda or plans. Be sure to design a mechanism for a group check-in on what topics are important to the members and how well the group is functioning.
  4. Groups run by a coach or recruiter. These groups are run by a professional facilitator, so there’s a continuity in leadership and the leader is trained. The groups tend to stay on track because everyone makes a commitment when joining that the leader will emphasize, often along with a financial commitment. Self-revelation is possible without being unduly vulnerable, because the group members typically will not know one another outside the group and may even come from different geographic areas, and you’ll receive coaching from the leader as well as peer input.

Whatever avenue you use to find or build a peer network, don’t neglect this. There’s no better route for sourcing ideas and support on professional topics including career moves, finding good candidates for employment, making and receiving introductions, and so much more.

Beyond Strengths and Weaknesses

When you’re working on your BD plan, it’s important to have an objective and accurate sense of your strengths. I’ve met lawyers—my client Nate, for example— who enjoy making presentations to large groups of people (at a conference, for example) but rarely get follow-up conversations that lead to business when, in contrast, small-group or one-on-one conversations often forward the progress toward landing a new matter.

Several problems could account for the difference. I watched as Nate spoke from the stage at a conference and later saw him speak with a few individuals and smaller groups between conference sessions. I realized that speaking to small groups and individuals is a strength for Nate while speaking to large audiences is a weakness. This wasn’t a blind spot: Nate kicked off our first post-conference conversation by telling me that he knew he hadn’t done well, but that he planned to work on his speaking skills and improve so that he’d knock it out of the park at his next presentation.

The problem is that we tend to talk about strengths and weaknesses as if a weakness is just an undeveloped strength.  Not so.  Sometimes, a weakness is an inability, pure and simple, that can be corrected only by bringing in assistance from another resource.  Here’s what I explained to Nate (with thanks to Don Blohowiak, a coaching colleague who shared this useful framework):

  • Potential refers to your native capabilities than can be (but have not yet been) developed.
  • Strengths refer to the capabilities that you execute competently to masterfully.
  • Limitations refer to the capabilities that you have in short supply.  Some limitations can be developed, and others will require replacement from another source.
  • Absences refer to the capabilities that you simply don’t have.  There is no shame in lacking capabilities.  No one has every possible capability.  Instead, the task is to find someone whose capabilities are complementary to your absences.  (If, for instance, you are leading a client service team and complex accounting is an important part of the matter and you lack masterful accounting skills, you must find someone who can bring that competency to the team.)
  • Weaknesses refer to the capabilities that you pretend to have but cannot actually execute.

Using this model, Nate’s speaking to a large audience is a weakness (as he recognized) but because he pretended that he could correct it, the weakness could not be eliminated.  Nate was failing at business development because he was leading from a weakness and pretending it was a strength.

Review your business development plan, your professional development plan, your career strategy plan – any plan at all that reflects your goals – and ask these questions:

  • What are my strengths?
  • How are my strengths reflected in my plan?
  • How can I develop my potential so I can deploy those capabilities in my plan?
  • What weaknesses am I denying?
  • Do my priorities coincide with my strengths?

If, like Nate, you lead from weakness, you will produce only frustration.  Spend some time in honest self-reflection and look for opportunities to shift what you’re doing based on your natural and developed capabilities.  And, if (like Nate) you find that you’ve been pretending that you are developing your weaknesses, stop pretending.  Shift your approach.