The Service Guarantee

  • July 09, 2014
  • Richard G. Stock

Every lawyer must find a competitive advantage. Some 85% of legal work flows to those firms and lawyers who maintain a relationship with the client, but it will only stay with those firms that innovate and deliver service.

What can the advantage be, especially when a law firm's expertise is rarely the differentiating factor for a client? Most clients stay with lawyers who innovate, deliver service and successfully maintain a relationship.

In their book Competing Against Time, George Stalk Jr. and Thomas Hout demonstrate that clients are loyal to service providers who are consistently responsive to their needs. The same clients will pay a premium beyond market price to a responsive firm. Clients of all types want their lawyers to understand their needs, not just the requirements of the particular case or transaction.

Innovation for professional firms, and indeed for businesses in general, must focus on three service dimensions: some combination of accessibility, responsiveness and speed that varies with each client. Corporations have moved away from concentrating on low labour costs and towards increased delivery flexibility, a wider variety of services and speed of delivery. But lawyers have been slow to follow.

Clients rarely complain about a lawyer's knowledge or legal abilities. Instead, they perceive that matters move too slowly, that progress reports are too infrequent, and that lawyers are hard to reach. No lawyer is ever guilty of over-communicating.

Every client should know specifically how legal counsel will address its legal, business and personal issues. Still, less than 10% of all legal work in Canadian firms is covered by specific terms of engagement. Lawyers can still create a competitive advantage by introducing service standards with their clients.

Explicit service standards have three components. The first is accessibility, which describes the role of each member of the legal services team, who the backup will be, and how every member can be reached.

The second standard deals with timeliness. Law firms should issue an electronic acknowledgement of all new matters within 48 hours. They must reach an explicit understanding with each client for returning phone calls, producing reports (verbal and written) and setting completion dates for different phases of a matter.

Achievement of the third standard, client-defined satisfaction, is much less within the lawyer's control. The lawyer and client must agree upon measures and indicators of value - as perceived by the client. Test the client's satisfaction levels with regular surveys, focus groups, and informal check-up meetings. Adjust the firm's service delivery practices according to the results.

The 7-Point Guarantee
Some of our clients in firms across Canada will recognize the 7-point service guarantee, which we recommend be included in every law firm engagement letter, placed in the firm brochure and displayed in the reception area.

  1. Clear expectations. Send engagement letters for all matters from new and existing clients, setting out the arrangement for the three service standards.

  2. Accessibility. Identify legal teams and backups for every client, with the capacity to reach them 24/7. Return phone calls in four hours or less.

  3. No disruptions. Hold meetings at the client's premises unless otherwise arranged.

  4. Timeliness. Create case plans for all matters requiring ten or more hours of legal work. Meet the schedule for communications, deliver documents on time, be on time for every meeting.

  5. Paperless. Reduce paper; use email for correspondence and document transmission, including bills. Provide online access for the client to documents and status reports.

  6. Price. Ensure there are no surprises on price. Move away from hourly rates and towards fixed fees and ±10% ranges for each phase of the work.

  7. Satisfaction. If the client is not satisfied with these elements of service, and this is different from the results of the case or file, then the firm will reimburse twice the fee paid by the client. This, however, would be contingent on a formal discussion between the client and the firm's managing partner.

Too often, lawyers focus on getting the work and doing the work, while drifting through the service continuum. A service guarantee of this type will differentiate a law firm from its competitors and raise its profits appreciably above its reference market.

Richard G. Stock, M.A., FCIS, C.Adm., CMC is a partner with Catalyst Consulting, designated the Preferred Supplier for Legal Services Consulting by both the CBA and the CCCA. Richard can be contacted at (416) 367-4447 or at