Is there any hope at all?

I have just engaged a law firm to process a fairly straight forward transaction. This is my story of how, in my humble opinion, they got it spectacularly wrong from a client’s perspective from start to finish. They would probably feel it was just another matter moving through the office and won’t be aware, yet at least, of the effect they will have had on a potentially loyal client.

My motive is to shine a light on how easy it is to mistreat a client and to share with you how it feels from a client’s perspective. I also want to suggest what that may mean for the long-term survival of firms who fail to address an obvious disregard to basic service standards.

In fact, the firm I used were the second firm I selected – the first being so slow to respond that I gave up. That’s another story!

During the course of the transaction, the following represents a brief summary of the service I received:

  • The senior lawyer who was allocated to my case promised me on 4 occasions: “…I should be back to you today but, if not, I will definitely do so by tomorrow”. They failed on 4 occasions (out of 4). Note that it was their self-imposed deadline and I had no say as to when that would be. Don’t get me wrong, I can see they were well-intentioned, but completely hopeless at fulfilling their own set deadline on every single occasion. A classic case of over-promising and under-delivering.
  • We agreed a fee at the outset. In fact, that’s the only way I would engage a solicitor. They quoted a fee, which I accepted without challenge. When I went to their office to deliver a document, they asked my to bring my cheque book to pay the fee and they would give me the fee note. This I did, in the agreed sum, which they again confirmed was the right amount. (Incidentally, the fee note wasn’t ready for me at that time, even though it was promised.) However, when I received the final document in the post, I also received the invoice for an amount nearly £100 more, because of a land registry disbursement, asking me to send another cheque for the extra. This made me angry, especially as I had agreed the fee and the 6 parties to the transaction had all approved it. Now I have to go back to each to ask for an additional sum. As customers, we would all have expected the lawyer to have included this in their quote at the outset (assuming they must have been aware of it) or settled it themselves if they weren’t. If the latter was the case, that would be very worrying indeed.
  • The document they produced for signature, which was broadly a standard precedent, contained no less than 6 different typographical errors. Essentially, the only things they had to add to it were names and addresses, which I sent to them accurately by email. Quite apart from the inconvenience of having to initial and witness each amendment, the error rate was simply staggering and rather calls into question the quality of the legal work.

The irony is that the firm I used prides itself in differentiating by the level of service it offers. They certainly don’t sell on price, with the non-partner fee earner that did my work charging out at £230 plus VAT per hour. They probably spend a fortune marketing the firm, making their offices look impressive, building a classy website, telling the world how wonderful they are and why clients should come to them rather than the firm down the road. In fact, I bet the board are either blissfully unaware that such appalling service is being given or fail to understand that their clients will be so incensed by how they’re being treated.

This morning, I was chatting to the managing partner of another firm about this and he suggested that such treatment was probably endemic in the profession. Something tells me that he may be right.

As a client, I have to say they broke my trust on about 11 occasions. That’s quite an achievement. I am sure the natural response of any client receiving such treatment would be to: 

  1. never use their services again,
  2. go to another firm at the drop of a hat,
  3. never recommend their friends to the firm and
  4. tell whoever will listen about their experience, ad nauseam.

The firm is almost certainly puzzled as to why they are not making as much money as they used to before 2007. My view is that can probably be attributed more to their hubris and complacency towards the loyalty of clients than to the commoditisation of legal services. Further and more importantly, I fail to see how, in the turbulent times in which professional firms find themselves, a firm offering such poor attention to the basics can survive. Any new entrant – and there are many in the world of legal services – should find it relatively easy to hoover up market share from what must be a substantial number of firms who are ignoring the importance of very basic client care standards that pretty much every other industry now takes for granted.

My story is simply a heart-felt reflection of how I feel I was treated as a client. Using the experience and knowledge I have gained from my work of what makes businesses in all sectors thrive, I have then considered the potential implications for the legal profession as a whole.

Am I wrong? Perhaps clients will happily accept poor or even mediocre service into perpetuity. What do you think?

About paulhopwood

Teaching, guiding and mentoring professional service firms and successful business owners, providing them with time to think. Love family, reading and walking. Brighton UK
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10 Responses to Is there any hope at all?

  1. Brilliant article Paul, summarising problems endemic in so many service industries: 1. It doesn’t make me happy you give an absurdly quick deadline, but it does disenfranchise me when you miss any deadline, 2. if a fee moves due to a matter that could not reasonably be expected (i.e. I’ve moved the goalposts) – fine, but due to any other reason it is not acceptable. If it’s a non-standard matter that does not fit a ‘menu’, possibly fine, but why does it not fit the menu!? 3. typographic errors are inexcusable – full stop. If a professional can’t be bothered to check the detail *especially* on a legal document/application form etc. then what hope have they got in showing a duty of care on other matters?

    Very, very “grrr”…

  2. paulhopwood says:

    Thanks for the feedback Alistair. I can see that the article may upset a few people, but my intentions are to bring this into the consciousness of my biggest client sector – professional service firms.

  3. David Anderson says:

    Paul – sadly this resonates with me as a frequent buyer of professional services from both lawyers and accountants. At it’s core seems to be a pervasive view that the normal “rules” of client service do not apply to the professions, because they are “professionals” whom we should hold in high esteem. The power is now so clearly with the client; firms who ignore this fact do so at their peril.

    Good manners is good for business!

    • paulhopwood says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience David. We have both worked for many years in the accountancy profession – it certainly gives a different perspective being a client rather than a provider.

  4. Lara Squires says:

    Having worked in the professional service industry for 10 years I am afraid I would echo the managing partner that you spoke to’s comments. It’s one of the things I work hard on with the practices that I deal with, clear communication, never over promising and reminding them that the only real differentiator is their service so it really needs to be first class! Thanks for communicating your experience Paul. I expect the firm will be mortified when they do receive your feedback – lets hope they so something constructive with it though!

  5. Ian Faires says:

    Paul, you are so right to highlight this situation. The one thing is this is an obvious chance for you to gain a new client, with you help they can not fail to improve their business. Ian

  6. Clare says:

    I can’t say I’m surprised considering how time pressed the legal profession is. It leads to a tendency to over promise and under-deliver and being unrealistic with their own and client expectations. It has an impact on the quality of work produced as well as the client/professional relationship. Some of the companies I deal with don’t have agreed levels of service, hence varying levels of quality or they just keep going over work until they get it right. A waste of time, effort and money – especially when it’s the client that ends up – like you, annoyed and frustrated and in the end going elsewhere, certainly not recommending them and telling everyone else about their experience.

    • paulhopwood says:

      Thanks Clare. Whilst it may not be surprising it’s still, in my view, both unforgivable and unsustainable. I should add that I’ll never expose the name of the firm I used. After all, I’ve worked with about 30 firms in Sussex alone over many years. My motive is simply to make more firms aware of the malaise that exists amongst some (and I believe many) fee-earners. I would guess similar experiences could easily be found in any firm.

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