Lawyers need to think more like publicans

When it comes to customer service, lawyers should think more like publicans, writes Edward O’Rourke – who began his career in pub and hotel management before becoming a corporate lawyer and eventually CEO of Ashtons Legal, a 200+ strong law firm operating across East Anglia. Ashton’s is growing strongly under his leadership, based on a reputation for excellent service. Does he have a point?

My career started in pub and hotel management, so I had a service mentality drummed in early.

When I changed career to become a corporate lawyer, all I knew about service was severely challenged. It was as if the legal sector wanted me to erase it from my memory completely.

In the hospitality business, your role is focused on making things right for the customer. It seems the opposite is true for the legal profession, where an “I know best” mentality prevails. Whatever happened to “the customer is always right”?

It didn’t come as a huge surprise, then, to read a recent report claiming there was a “disturbing level of tunnel vision” among law firms when it comes to adopting modern customer service standards.

According to a study from Peppermint Technology, firms are failing to maintain regular relationships with their clients, are behind in offering online access to enable case tracking or checking as well as downloading documents, and rarely bother to ask for client feedback.

A quick trawl of most law firms’ websites leaves no doubt that this can’t possibly be true. Claims about “putting customers first” or “our customer-centric approach” are everywhere. They all say it, but until the profession starts to look at its offer through the eyes of the consumer it can’t possibly live up to its online claims.

I’ve seen some shocking examples of poor customer service by law firms over the years, most frequently involving those which make a mistake or don’t follow instructions only to charge the client for correcting their own errors. It wouldn’t happen in any other profession.

The Legal Service Act 2007 hasn’t helped either as it failed to grasp the challenge of changing traditional models with very limited budgets. Yet the sad part was the arrogance of the profession, which forced the adoption of this route as opposed to working together to improve services.

Sadder still is that the big stick approach has played into the hands of the die-hards who are now using the failure of the legislation to justify their position of not changing. But change they will have to, even if the Act has not led to more informed consumers or improved technology.

The biggest change will be the move towards commoditisation, driven by investment in technology. Talk of artificial intelligence and “robot lawyers” is thankfully premature. For law firm customers, there will always be some element of human contact required, but only those firms which manage to combine the technology with the right level of customer interaction will thrive and, for some, that will require a complete change of mindset.

I’m reminded of John Kennedy’s inaugural speech as US president in which he asked American citizens: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” It is high time law firms created a culture that says: “Ask not what your clients can do for you – ask what you can do for your clients.”