Top 10 Client Service Best Practices

Be Accessible
Client service isn't brain surgery. Our readers' top client service best practice is very simple -- answer your phone.

Just making yourself available when your client calls or stops by your office goes a long way toward building a strong partnership with business units.

"Be there. Accessibility and availability are the key ingredients to this relationship," says Elizabeth Robertson, manager of the legal unit at Canal Insurance Co.

Answering the phone is important because it's an outward sign that helping clients is your priority.

"Client service is in-house counsel's reason for existing," Robertson says. "Our purpose and our mission is to service the client."

Respond Promptly
When you have a thousand matters to worry about, it's easy to let non-crisis requests languish at the bottom of your inbox.

But clients expect a prompt response, whether it's a quick return phone call to answer a question or a lengthy opinion on a complex legal issue.

Triaging requests appropriately means identifying the client's deadline expectations and then meeting that turnaround timeframe.

"Lawyers need to be able to move at the pace of business, not the other way around," says Mark
Weintrub, senior vice president and chief legal officer of General Nutrition Centers.

Learn The Business
Knowing the law is one thing. Understanding the business is quite another. And effective client service requires both.

For Kathy Dwyer, senior counsel for software developer Sungard, staying on top of an enormous business can be difficult. In the past few decades, the $4 billion company has experienced massive growth through acquisition of more than 100 companies. But her task stays manageable because the legal department assigns each business unit a specific lawyer who becomes familiar with that segment of the business.

"Having lawyers with the specific expertise to work on these deals and to understand the issues for the various business units makes us much more valuable to the business units," Dwyer says.

Don't Say 'No'
A general counsel's job is to keep clients out of legal hot water.

But when clients run into legal obstacles, GCs should offer alternatives, rather than just stopping them in their tracks.

"In everyday business, people--in their exuberance to grow--sometimes start going in the wrong direction legally," says Jim McGrath, vice president of the industrial fan manufacturer New York Blower Company. "I don't just say 'no.' I come up with a plan where we can do something."

Listen to Feedback
Unless you're psychic, the best way to gauge client satisfaction is to ask your clients how you're doing.

Once you know what people want, it's easy to keep them happy.

The legal team at Canadian construction company Aecon Group, for example, sends out a periodic e-survey asking for satisfaction ratings and suggestions. One thing the surveys revealed was the need for the legal department to demonstrate how its strategies align with corporate objectives. Now the department gives quarterly presentations to senior management--just one of many initiatives developed as a direct result of the surveys.

"There's no way we would have invented them on our own," says Brian Swartz, senior vice president of legal and commercial services at Aecon.

Empower Your Clients
Putting legal tools in your clients' hands can make their lives easier--and yours, too.

Nestor Barrero, employment counsel for NBC Universal, finds that providing his clients with on-the-job legal training and education not only fosters confidence in dealing with routine situations, but also encourages them to consult counsel before an issue gets out of hand.

"The more knowledge they have, the more likely they are to call you, rather than thinking they're bothering the legal department or that they don't have enough information to consult a lawyer," he says.

In-house seminars led by an attorney are useful tools for teaching clients how to deal with frequently occurring issues, such as sexual harassment claims or layoffs. Inhouse counsel also can work with outside vendors or their own IT departments to develop online training modules.

Some legal departments also keep clients up-to-date with an intranet where they post relevant legal updates and litigation progress reports and allow businesspeople to access basic forms.

Barrero takes the education process one step further by inviting employees to sit in on mediations and arbitrations.

"You help take away some of that mystique about the whole legal process by bringing them along," he says.

Reduce Law Firm Costs
Saving your clients money is a sure way to score points.

To cope with stratospheric law firm fees, savvy GCs are taking steps to keep legal costs under control. Requiring law firms to prepare and adhere to budgets is an often-overlooked first step.

At Exelon Corp., the legal department goes further, putting outside firms in competition for their business by sending out RFPs every three years. The process requires the law firms to answer a questionnaire and submit to an extensive interview with the law department's leadership team.

"The primary focus of the RFP is to identify firms that in exchange for a discounted rate will receive the bulk of Exelon's legal work," says Assistant GC Sylvia Bateman. "It's very favorably received [by our internal clients] because they recognize they're getting a discount off of standard rates."

In addition to RFPs, Exelon cuts outside counsel costs by using matter management and e-billing, which tracks whether billing rates and other charges on law firm invoices are within the approved guidelines.

Communicate Clearly and Directly
Cut out the legalese and confusing buzzwords.

Most likely your client isn't a lawyer, so translate your advice into English and explain the issues the way you would to your neighbor, not your law school professor. Then engage your client in dialogue.

"Dealing with the particular legal question is only the beginning of the communication," says Luis Machado, associate GC for Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. "It is incumbent on the lawyer to understand how clients can take their advice and apply it to their situation. That's an active conversation."

Get to Know Clients
Cultivating relationships with internal businesspeople is an investment that always pays off.

Tamara Joseph, general counsel of Mayne Pharma, greets new clients with notes of introduction and continues with regular meetings and more personal contact such as lunch dates.

"Clients are often more relaxed over lunch and talk about business in a way you don't hear in a formal meeting," Joseph says. "You get to know them better as people. You build trust."

Clients First
Ultimately, in-house counsel are in a service role, and in the service world, the customer always comes first.

Alan Bloom, general counsel of Care1st Health Plan, lives by this adage. He compares an effective in-house counsel to a store clerk scrambling to become employee of the month. If you're looking for a light bulb, that service oriented employee will take you to the light bulb aisle, make sure you find what you're looking for and check the stockroom if necessary.

"If somebody comes to you [with wants or needs], your reaction should be, 'OK, let me get you exactly what you're looking for,' " Bloom says. "That to me is the key to client service."

Technology Editor

Keith Ecker

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