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Focus on client: Developing client-centric practice | Jo-Anne Stark

Monday, December 13, 2021 @ 10:54 AM | By Jo-Anne Stark

Jo-Anne Stark %>
Jo-Anne Stark
Dear Jo: I’ve been a lawyer for many years, and I feel as though I give excellent service to my clients. Yet I still find that when I send out my bill, many clients don’t seem to appreciate the effort or the outcome achieved. Am I doing something wrong?

Nothing is more frustrating to a professional than to provide outstanding service and feel the client is less than grateful. When I started off in private practice in the 1990s, I often wondered why it was that some of my clients would write thank you letters and refer clients over to me; yet I wouldn’t hear from other clients whose legal problems I had solved.

It was only years later that I realized the difference: in some cases, I was directly involved with the client, which gave me the opportunity as a young lawyer to take the time needed to meet with the client, respond promptly to all their calls and e-mails and just really focus on them. When I was doing the work in the background, I didn’t have as much direct contact with the client; often times, the busy partners in the firm also didn’t have much time to spend with those clients. So the work was done and the outcome was successful — but the client is simply sent the bill and I wouldn’t hear from them.

When I began coaching clients around 2014 on a pro bono basis, I took the time to really listen to my clients. And when I launched my virtual all-coaching legal practice a couple of years later, I made sure the entire operation would always be focused on the client. As lawyers, we all went through law school focusing on the legal issues — but clients aren’t “issues,” they are people! It was only after years as general legal counsel in a bank that I realized that the traditional practice of law is missing the mark: in the bank world, I had to adjust my working style to focus only on client needs — and designing services to meet those needs. This was a departure from the way I was serving clients in the law firm setting.

Research is now being done which explains just how much this departure can impact the client relationship: surveys prove that what we assume clients expect from us is very different from what they actually want! Randall Kiser in his American Law Firms in Transition summarized what clients and lawyers view as the key competencies for outside counsel.

Whereas lawyers assumed that legal expertise, honouring client confidentiality, punctuality and risk mitigation strategies are most important for clients, the clients provide a very different list of competencies they expect from a lawyer. Clients want open communication, to be kept informed, prompt responses, good listening skills, accurate cost estimates and a rationale for variances. I’m not sure any of those competencies were taught when I went to law school. It’s no wonder that legal professionals are often viewed negatively — as we were not taught the most basic competencies that clients want or expect!

In 2021 Legal Trends Report, published recently by Clio, it was found that:

“The stakes are high for lawyers, as the market for legal services is a competitive space for attracting and retaining clients. As the research in this report demonstrates, the firms that are able to adapt to meet the needs of their clients in a planned and purposeful way are the ones that will reap the rewards. Meanwhile, those that remain set in their ways risk closing themselves off from valuable market opportunities, which will only have an increasingly negative impact on their bottom line as the market continues to evolve.”

My takeaway from this? For law firms of the future, developing a client-centric practice will be critical to drive success. While there may always be worker bees busily solving the legal problems in the background, law firms need to appreciate that there must also be professionals on staff to give the clients the service they expect — and to have the competencies required to build lasting relationships. As a legal coach, my focus isn’t so much about doing the legal work: self-represented clients understand that they are solving their own legal issues and managing their own case. My role is to provide the guidance and support that they need to make that all happen. Listening to the client and helping them establish reasonable goals and manage the steps to get there — that is my primary role! Clients who use legal coaches to help them navigate through legal issues express a very high rate of satisfaction: as the focus is on the client in every coaching session.

Jo-Anne Stark, B.Comm., J.D., CLC, is the founding president of the non-profit Legal Coaches Association and author of Mastering the Art of Legal Coaching. Find her on LinkedIn.

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