In a recent email, the president of The Atlantic Monthly, Bob Cohn, sent subscribers a note about the magazine’s revamped website. Nothing new there—good publications refresh their online presence regularly—but the process Cohn described by which his team gathered data for the change caught my attention:
Last year, we invited several dozen readers to The Atlantic’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., to teach us a thing or two. In a series of one-on-one sessions, a user expert on our product team sat and watched as a reader navigated around our home page. Literally, sat and watched (and asked questions)—while video captured what was on the screen as the user moused and swiped, and audio recorded any delights and frustrations.
For those of us who watched the videos, the process was revealing. Features that we thought made intuitive sense did not always work for readers. Elements we were starting to see as extraneous in fact retained a lot of appeal.
Of course we already had reams of data about where readers click. But this was qualitative: What were they thinking as they moved around our site? What did they love? What was useless or confusing? The results of that research informed a major redesign of the homepage that we introduced this morning.
Your law firm can take two important lessons from this.
The first is to do exactly what The Atlantic did when it’s time to revamp your firm’s website. (Pro tip: it’s almost certainly time to revamp your website.) Invite some of your clients into your offices, set them up in your boardroom with coffee and healthy snacks, give them a computer tuned to your website, and ask them to navigate it. Watch what they do.1
- See what they click on and how long it takes them to find what they sought. Ask them to narrate the process of navigation: What was easy? Hard? What was quick? What took too long?
- Ask them to find specific items like a partner’s biography and see how long it takes. Once they do, ask them to read it and tell you what they wanted to know that wasn’t included in the text.
- Ask them to find three things anywhere on the website that are helpful or interesting to them. If they can’t easily find three such things, think about that.
Too many law firm websites are built for the firm’s lawyers, not for its clients. The websites are stuffed with information that the lawyers consider important (most of it ego-feeding) but that clients either don’t care about or automatically discount, and they’re organized by “lawyer” categories (e.g., practice areas) rather than by problems or opportunities or markets or industries, which are the categories in which clients tend to think. Allow your clients to help you improve the design of your website by changing its focus from the lawyer to the client.
My second suggested takeaway from The Atlantic’s approach is to do exactly the same thing with your entire law firm service delivery system. It’s not just their websites that law firms create and maintain according to their own preferences; it’s the entire law firm experience:
- It’s the first meeting with the client, in which clients don’t always feel they’ve had a chance to tell their whole story or to meet the staff they’ll frequently be dealing with in future.
- It’s the retainer letter, which might arrive weeks later or sometimes not at all, and that’s not always clear about what’s been promised and what has not been promised.
- It’s the ongoing communication, which is usually sporadic and sometimes inadequate and often leaves the client wondering what’s going on with their matter and what will happen next.
- It’s the responsiveness to client inquiries, which is usually so lacking that variations on “my lawyer didn’t get back to me” regularly top the list of complaints lodged with regulators.
- It’s the standard method of pricing the lawyer’s work, which from the client’s perspective is impenetrable, inefficient, and fraught with the danger of unexpected and unaffordable bills.
- It’s the billing process itself, which usually generates an invoice several months after the work has been done, when the lawyer’s accomplishment and value have faded from memory.
These are all examples of breakdowns in the client experience, and the client experience is almost as important—sometimes, it can be as or more important—than the deliverable the client receives from you. But you, as the lawyer, will never know this, because you haven’t experienced what it’s like to seek and obtain legal services from your firm. You’re on the inside, running the delivery mechanisms. By definition, you cannot know what it’s like on the outside, at the receiving end.
Only your clients know what it’s like. So ask them to tell you. Invite them to your offices for a day and have them meet the receptionist who takes their calls and the secretary who took their messages, and then ask what these professionals could have done better when serving them. Sit down with the client and do a review of his our her entire timeline of their interactions with the firm, and ask, “What could I have done better for you? Where did I fall short? Be honest.” If you think the client will be reluctant to criticize you to your face, delegate the job to a trustworthy associate with good interviewing and listening skills.
This is a major ask of your clients, by the way, and it requires more in return than coffee and snacks. Give them a substantial gift card to a local merchant—or even better, a free consultation with one of your lawyers, which the client can use him or herself or can give to a family member or friend who needs legal help.
Then, when the whole process is complete, take seriously what you’ve heard from your clients. Take it to heart, both the good and the bad, and do something about it: more of the good, less of the neutral, never again the bad. Eventually, you’ll want to incorporate this process into the client service experience itself: rather than waiting until it is all over to do a post-mortem, introduce elements of the “How are we doing” process into the relationship in real time. Monitor the health of the patient (the client relationship) while it’s alive; don’t wait for the autopsy when it’s all over.
Your clients know far more about what it’s like to use your firm than you do. There is no intelligence about your firm more valuable than this. Ask them, very nicely, to tell you. Reward them handsomely for telling you, and let them know what changes and improvements you’ve made based on their feedback. That’s how you run a responsive, client-first law firm in the new legal market.
If they consent, video-record it. ↩