The idea that lawyers should be “service oriented” is now widely accepted. The “service culture” is where today’s lawyers find inspiration when it comes to setting professional best practices. The idea is: it’s not enough to be an expert in legal matters, you also need to provide excellent service to your client. Service orientation is presented and perceived as the right mind-set for the ultimate professional.
Today's firms are rushing to mention "commitment to excellent client service" everywhere: in mission statements, in firm brochures, and in training programs. Service has become the new battleground where firms compete to create a competitive advantage.
Well, I disagree. I believe the obsession with the service mind-set is detrimental to both lawyers and their clients, in other words that it is both unprofitable and unethical. I believe that promoting service orientation is a big mistake, because it misses the point.
Of course, lawyers should return phone calls and respond to emails promptly, show up on time at meetings and meet deadlines, be reasonably available, put chocolates in the meeting room, etc. But this has nothing to do with service. You probably do the same with your friends: you return their calls, show up at time for lunch appointments, smile when you see them, call them by their name, and don't forget their birthdays. It does not mean that you are "service-oriented" towards them. It simply means that you are well organised and that you care. Obviously, lawyers should be well organised and should also genuinely care for their clients. But this has nothing to do with service.
Service means a relationship where one party gives instructions, and the other obediently executes. Service is what you expect from a waiter, a groom, or the pizza delivery guy. They do not question you on your motives, they do not challenge your opinions and your judgements, there are just there to please you how and when you want them to. The service relationship is not a relationship among equals: there is a master who expects to be served, and there is a compliant servant, and the more client-compliant the servant is, the better it is for the master. That's definitely not my vision of the ideal client-lawyer relationship. Self-organisation, responsiveness, and care? Yes, of course, these are obvious prerequisites. Service? No way.
The service-obsessed lawyer who places short-term satisfaction (or even delight) of his client above all, has abdicated not only the dignity but also the usefulness of his profession: he has lost his independence. He is submitted to the client. He has entered into a power game, and he is on the losing side. His clients' wishes and desires have become his ultimate benchmark.
The eagerness to please the client no matter what, which is the trademark of the service philosophy, is a lose-lose game: it is a disservice for the client (and therefore unethical), because the professional will not stand up to prevent his clients from engaging into meaningless or counterproductive directions. "As long as the client is happy…" It is also counterproductive for the lawyer, because you will never deserve nor get respect, trust, loyalty (and high fees that come with it) if you just "comply". You will be paid what servants are paid, and be treated the way they are. And rightly so.
The sad thing is, because lawyers are convinced that service is the ultimate value these days, they have educated their clients in the same way, and now clients have converted to the service religion: they believe that the best their lawyers have to offer is excellent service. How do lawyers educate their clients this way? Satisfaction surveys, for example: you will find lots of questions on whether the client is happy with the service (returned phone calls, availability, friendliness, etc.), just like the forms you find in hotels on check-out day. But isn't there a difference between hotels and law firms? Is is really those things that distinguish great lawyers and law firms from the others? Of course not.
If the client-lawyer relationship is not to be based on service, what should it be based on? My answer is: value for the client. The questions in the survey should not (only) be about returned phone calls and the like; they should be about the value that is being created by the firm for the benefit of the client. Value is an improvement in the client's condition. You don't measure a lawyer's excellence by the fact that there are no typos in his memos. You measure it by the improved client's condition that the lawyer has contributed to create. It is not the excellence of your work that matters (lawyer-centred perspective), it is the value created for, and perceived by your client (client-centred perspective).
Just try this: ask yourself "How can I improve service to my clients?" and note your ideas (they may include things like "put new paintings in the meeting rooms" or "teach the receptionist to smile on the phone"). Then do the same with the question "How can I create more value for my clients?". Believe me, you will come up with very different answers.
If the client "orders" something that, in the lawyer's opinion will not improve the client's condition, the service-oriented professional will nevertheless comply, obey, and proceed promptly, because "the client is king" and the game is about making the client happy. On the contrary, the value-oriented lawyer, under the same circumstances, will question the client's request, challenge it, and if necessary, refuse to proceed or propose an alternative. The value-oriented lawyer will not compromise on the purpose of creating long-term value for the client. A clear commitment to create value for the client (not to be at the client's service) is the basis for effective client-lawyer partnerships, based on integrity and trust, not compliance with the client's directions or ego.
The commitment should not be to service. It should be to value. Don't miss the opportunity. Be ambitious. Focus on what really matters to your clients, which by the way is also what could really be profitable to you: creating value for your client. That goes beyond brand chocolates in the meeting rooms.