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SmallLaw: Hello, I'm a Mac. And I'm a Lawyer. Three Lessons From Apple for Law Firms.

By Mazyar Hedayat | Monday, November 16, 2009

SmallLaw 11-09-09-450

Originally published on November 9, 2009 in our free SmallLaw newsletter.

The June 22, 2009 issue of BlawgWorld featured an article by Jay Shepherd entitled What if the Apple Store Billed by the Hour?

Shepherd notes that the personal attention he received on his visit to the Apple Store may not have maximized revenue per employee or customer (traditional retail measurements), but it made an indelible and lasting impression on him. He also laments that law firms do not use this far-sighted business model — presumably because they are preoccupied with making a gain on every activity with every Client, regardless of the long-term effects of doing so.

Are lawyers really so profit-driven, short-sighted, and incapable of delivering customer service? Below I've compared three hallmarks of the Apple experience with that of law firms. It isn't pretty, but there's hope.

1. Customer Service As a Sales Tool

Contrast the typical experience of being in an Apple Store with the process of finding, vetting, hiring, and working with a lawyer.

To begin with, Apple stores are laid out in a clean, well-lit, orderly fashion. The goods are displayed on inviting tables with clear indications of what costs what. No hidden fees. And you can try anything you like without being mobbed by store employees.

If you need help, Apple salespeople are available and clearly identifiable by their brightly colored t-shirts and badges. These salespeople work on a modified salary basis instead of commission so their body language is entirely different than that of a typical salesperson hell-bent on hitting their numbers at your expense. Compensation depends not just on sales but customer retention and satisfaction, so Apple salespeople can spend time talking about what you want to know instead of hyping the peripheral du jour. In fact most of the time Apple salespeople appear to be answering questions instead of pushing product.

By contrast, finding a lawyer, much less working with one, can prove stressful. Few people know that County Bar associations maintain lawyer referral services, so most just ask around, call out of the Yellow Pages, or search the Internet. Yet despite attempts by Web sites such as Avvo to bring some transparency to this process, prospective clients are still at a disadvantage in attempting to determine whether a lawyer will be a good fit. Some people who find a lawyer they can afford, at least initially, eventually find the relationship characterized by frustration, disappointment, and lack of communication.

Does this scenario play out at your firm? Before answering, ask yourself:
  1. Does every prospect call receive the same level of attention?

  2. Do we call prospects and clients back within 24 hours? 48 hours?

  3. Do my clients see me as a problem solver or as a salesperson?

  4. Do clients recommend my services to their friends and family?

  5. Would I sacrifice or partially refund fees to maintain goodwill?

  6. Do I educate clients about their case? Do I answer all questions?
2. It Just Works

The charms of the Apple Store aside, what lingers is the way you feel about the product you buy. Apple's customer satisfaction numbers are legendary. Do people pay a premium for Apple-branded computers and mobile phones because they offer the most features or best bang for the buck?

No. But Apple customers like me remain loyal and even a bit zealous. Why? Because we feel like we receive value for our money, and because Apple's products do what you need them to do when you need them to do it. Sounds like a small claim but it's not. Anyone who has lived through a Windows-induced crash will tell you that.

To me, the secret of Apple's success is not technical excellence but rather reliability and ease of use. That kind of reputation attracts attention, which begets creative users, which begets applications for the Apple platform, leading to other users, and so on.

For example, after my first experience with the Mac in college, I scarcely touched one again for nearly 20 years until my wife said she was sick of her Dell laptop and I suggested that she take a look at a MacBook. She bought her MacBook in January 2007. Today everyone in my household uses a Mac of some sort and of course iPods and iPhone. Ditto for my parents, siblings, in-laws, etc. And so on.

Are we all Mac snobs? Do we have lots of disposable cash? Hardly. It's just that we need our computers and phones to perform reliably, integrate with one another, and feel comfortable. Good looks were a plus.

Does your firm enjoy such loyalty? Ask yourself:
  1. Does my practice inspire followers or detractors among clients?

  2. Do clients boast about working with me or complain about me?

  3. Do clients complain about how much they paid to work with me?

  4. Do clients brag about how much they got out of the relationship?

  5. Do I have to emphasize pricing or value to get a prospect's business?
Use Plain English and Manage Expectations

Apple did not invent personal computing. Instead, it took an activity engaged in by hobbyists and made it accessible to non-techies on a wide scale. While a freshman at the University of Chicago I got the opportunity to critique instructions for a technical product based on readability. That was my first direct experience with the value of making the complex simple. I still try to do that today, explaining what I am about do for clients as often as possible (unless I see their eyes glaze over).

People don't need to know how laws or sausages are made, but it's good to deliver that information in a manageable form like plain English. Apple learned this lesson from its very inception, but lawyers around the country still struggle with it.

I have come to see this ability as the central job of a lawyer — you cannot always control the outcome of a case, but you can explain what is about to happen and prepare your client for the possible outcomes. Or be prepared to fall on your sword. If Steve Jobs reads this column, I'm sure he would agree.

Written by Mazyar M. Hedayat of M. Hedayat & Associates, P.C.

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