End of Engagement Interviews
by Andrew Elowitt
(County Bar Update, December 2005, Vol. 25, No. 11)


End of Engagement Interviews


By Andrew Elowitt, J.D., M.B.A., secretary, LACBA Law Practice Management Section Executive Committee; chair, State Bar Law Practice Management and Technology Section. Elowitt is managing director of NEW ACTIONS C+C (www.newactions.com) and an organizational consultant and coach to executives, lawyers, and other service professionals throughout the United States. The opinions expressed are his own.


One of the most potent tools for improving law firm performance and marketing is also one of the most overlooked. Few lawyers tap into the best available source of information on how their firm is performing--Few take the time to check in with their clients and simply ask, "Are you satisfied with the services we've been providing?" Conversations with clients, whether we call them end of engagement interviews, completion interviews, or client satisfaction surveys, are a cost-effective, high-value way of not just improving firm performance but also strengthening client relationships.


Most businesses as well as an increasing number of professional service firms use consumer or client satisfaction surveys as the foundation of their marketing efforts. They recognize that satisfying consumers and clients is the key to retaining existing ones, attracting new ones, and maintaining an excellent reputation with referral sources. The investment they make in discovering what really matters to their clients lets them improve their services and develop client loyalty.


Why, then, if client interviews are potentially so valuable, do so many lawyers shy away from conducting them? First, many lawyers think it is not the best use of their time; instead, they focus on more urgent and billable matters. While this is understandable, many lawyers fail to recognize the critical importance of marketing. Time invested in completion interviews actually saves time in the long run by helping lawyers narrow the scope of their efforts to improve firm performance and marketing. A wide-ranging shotgun approach by contrast can be needlessly costly, time-consuming, and ineffective.


Second, some lawyers are simply uncomfortable with the idea of receiving candid feedback from clients. They may want to avoid feeling vulnerable and judged by their clients, and they may be afraid to open the proverbial can of worms. They generally assume that if there are significant problems, clients will express their dissatisfaction and contest their bills. This no-news-is-good-news approach is OK if all you are concerned about is detecting major problems, but it is useless if you are interested in raising your firm's level of service above what is merely satisfactory.


Third, most lawyers simply do not know how to go about conducting these interviews. These conversations require a mindset and skills that are different from those we usually employ as lawyers. Happily, these skills can be learned and mastered with guidance and practice.


Finding the right mindset. The golden rule in conducting these interviews is to focus on the clients' perceptions and experience of the firm's services, not your own. To more clearly hear your clients' concerns, you must first put aside your own feelings and opinions about your firm's performance. Once you have done that, you are in a much better position to clearly understand what your clients need, what they value in the delivery of legal services, and how well your firm is delivering those services. It is easy to become defensive and try to justify your firm's performance when clients are evaluating it, but when clients pick up on that defensiveness, they often clam up or disengage.


The best way to avoid that is to set the appropriate context and intention for the conversation. Remember, the goal here is to obtain valuable feedback and strengthen your relationship with your clients. If you want your clients to be candid, you must be candid, too. Be upfront about your intentions. Explain that finding out how the engagement went from their perspective will help you to improve your level of service to them and other clients.


Make it clear at the beginning that the conversation is not billable time and is not an attempt to solicit additional business for the firm. During the conversation, ask open-ended questions that will allow the clients to explain what they think is important in the way your firm provided legal services. Ask them what worked well during the engagement, what the firm could have done differently or better, and what the firm did not do--but could do--to make their client experience outstanding.


At the conclusion of the conversation, thank your clients for their time and feedback as well as for putting their trust in you and your firm. If their input later results in changes in the way your firm provides services, follow up with an e-mail or letter describing the changes, thanking them once again, and letting them know that their participation has made a difference. Throughout this entire process, take every available opportunity to build stronger client relationships and demonstrate your genuine interest in meeting their needs for legal services.

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