Local law firm Rhoades McKee is looking for a better way to do business.
At its annual meeting in Chicago last month, the firm learned from Holly Barocio of Akina Corporation, a legal coaching firm, of seven client experience trends in the industry.
The trends? Focus on quality and technical expertise, execute the basics, know the business, see things from the clients’ point of view rather than the lawyers’, give the client an understanding of what it’s going to be like to work with you, discuss more what it will take to convince clients to move their business from another firm to yours and do what you say you’re going to do.
Pam Cross, an estate planning and probate litigation attorney, and Mark Smith, an employment, construction and business counseling and litigation lawyer, are members of Rhoades McKee’s three-person executive committee. Recently, one of their jobs has been to examine all areas of the firm’s operations and adjust them to fit the client experience model.
Cross said the first step was to brainstorm how to differentiate the firm from the competition.
“There’s an abundance of good lawyers in West Michigan,” she said. “How can we raise the bar beyond legal service?”
Because of the internet, Smith said, potential clients are more educated about the legal world and are expecting not only competency, but a well-rounded experience.
“People shop around more than they used to,” he said. “And so, (it’s important) to learn more about the client rather than the client learning about you. And the clients are interested in sharing what they do with you.”
Smith said this should affect the way firms make their pitch to the client. It’s more relationship oriented.
“Clients have the expectation that when you’re presenting what you can do, they will have some idea of what it will be like to be your client at the end of the presentation,” he said. “Instead of the lawyer standing up and regurgitating their bio … it’s more of a give-and-take in terms of what we have in common, instead of what’s the menu that we can offer.”
Cross said clients need to be able to walk away with a mental picture of how they will fit into the firm and how the firm will communicate with them.
“Clients understand you know what to do. But how are you going to perform it?” she said. “What’s it going to be like to work with you and your firm beyond just the individual lawyer?”
In terms of earning clients’ business, Smith said because potential clients are so well connected on social media and through word-of-mouth, the onus is on the law firm to market and persuade.
“It’s rare that people who seek the business of a larger firm don’t already have a lawyer or know a lawyer,” he said. “You have to go deeper to persuade them.”
So how is Rhoades McKee putting what they learned into practice? Cross and Smith said it is a matter of study and change over time.
“One of the big initiatives we’ve undertaken is to look at what it’s like to be one of our clients,” Smith said. “We’re breaking it into pieces to look at, from the minute you get off the elevator until you get your file closure notice, what are the hallmarks of what brought you in here?”
A boon to positive client experience began two years ago, when Rhoades McKee moved into a new office space in the River Front Plaza building at 55 Campau Ave. NW.
According to a Business Journal report at the time, Paul A. McCarthy, president, said the space was “designed with our clients in mind,” from an inviting reception area to a beverage station that’s open to clients, to large conference rooms with plenty of natural lighting and big windows that offer views of the Grand River and Blue Bridge.
“The way we had (the office) organized was for lawyer collaboration, how best to serve the client and (how) to be welcoming,” Cross said. “We then revamped our website to make it easy to use, and now, this is the next step: to improve the client experience with the entire firm.”
Cross said the firm recently took a company retreat to discuss ways to make the experience consistent from lawyer to lawyer, meeting to meeting.
“We put together a team headed by one of our shareholders, Bruce Courtade, for the purpose of including more than just attorneys to work through how we can make the client experience the best,” Cross said. “Part of that is soliciting feedback from the clients themselves. That’s what’s really going to help us.”
Rhoades McKee said it always has sent post-service surveys to clients, but the goal now is to meet the clients where they’re at, on their preferred platform of communication, whether it’s text messages, email, phone calls or even snail mail.
Another avenue of change, Smith said, is reinserting legal assistants into the circle of communication.
“As time has gone on and clients have changed their communication to email, the lawyers are responding directly and leaving the legal assistants out of the loop,” he said. “We’re reintroducing them at the beginning, so the client has a face and a name of who they can deal with to find out updates on their case without having to go through the lawyer, which would be billed.”
Smith said it’s important for all firms to re-evaluate their service models, not just Rhoades McKee.
“Look at the dinosaurs and what happened to them,” he said. “In a changing environment, if you don’t continually adapt to what your clients need and expect, you’re just going to be part of history. The people who do not adapt will not survive. You don’t want to go to doctors who graduated in 1950 who are using the same surgical techniques as when they graduated.”
Cross added: “It’s a service industry. It’s about client relationships. The legal market in Grand Rapids has some really good lawyers, and our competitors are really good lawyers. To build on the client relationship is really important in retaining the client, to make sure they are a part of your firm.”