Last Wednesday, my wife and I were on day 3 of a 4 day Vermont cheese and maple syrup tour.  It was about noon on the hottest day of the year and we were driving down Route 35, about 30 miles from anywhere you’ve ever heard of, when I took a sharp corner and quickly swerved to avoid a piece of debris in middle of the road.  It looked like a rope or a piece of rubber, but the thud as I rolled over it made clear that my initial assessment was off. Then the tire pressure light on the dashboard lit up.

I popped the trunk, saw that there was a spare, but no jack or tire iron, then pulled out my phone and realized I had no signal.  A flat tire, 3 miles from nowhere, no jack, no tire iron, and no cell signal in the heat of the day on the hottest day of the year.  We flagged down a passing car and got a ride into Grafton where we hoped to find a cell signal.

I was grouchy, hot, frustrated, trying to remember if I had ever actually changed a tire and what the steps were, wondering if we were going to make it to the next bed and breakfast, whether we should call ahead, how much it was going to cost me to cancel, wondering how we could keep any cheese we buy from melting, I really wasn’t thinking clearly at that point.  I pulled out my phone and started up my Zipcar app.

We live in New York City, and as people with more sense than money, we don’t own a car.  Zipcar is a car sharing service that allows us to reserve local cars for use on an hourly or daily basis.  Their app allows us to make reservations, and report damage to the car, but the best feature by far is the big orange button in the upper right corner that simply says “Call Zipcar”.

I hit the button and got Debbie on the line.  I stammered incoherently, “Flat tire…Outside Grafton…No Jack…Help, please.” “I’m so sorry about that”, she said cheerfully, “let’s see what we can do?”  I gave her the details of where we were, where the car was, and where we were staying that night.  “OK, stay near the cell tower, I’ll call you back in a few minutes.”
A few minutes later she called back with news that someone would pick us up in Grafton, drive us to our car and change our tire. She found a tire place near the B&B we were staying that night and called ahead to make sure they had a tire that fit.
It all happened just as she said, and when we got to the garage in Manchester, they had a new tire ready and waiting for us.  In the room at the B&B, I snapped a picture of my tire receipt, emailed it to Debbie, and within a few minutes had confirmation that my credit card on file with Zipcar had been reimbursed the cost of the tire.  It had been an adventure, but relatively painless considering the situation we were in just a few short hours before. 
This got me thinking, as many things do, about law firms.  My situation on the side of the road in middle of nowhere Vermont is not unlike the situation many clients are in before they call their attorney.  No one calls their attorney just to check in and say that everything is going well.  You call on the hottest day of the year, when your metaphorical car is in a ditch with a flat and you’re missing a jack and a tire iron.  You call when you need help, often when you are not thinking straight and when you need someone else with the knowledge, resources, and capacity to do the thinking for you. You could argue that the answer to one of my earlier posts, is that we are selling the knowledge, resources, and capacity to do your legal thinking for you.
But there is one big, glaring difference between Zipcar and the legal industry.  The person solving my problem is a customer service rep, but my relationship is with the car service, not with the rep. If I hit the big orange button and Debbie is unavailable, or busy helping someone else, then I’ll get another qualified person, with access to the exact same tools and resources that Debbie has, to ensure that I get out of my jam as quickly and painlessly as possible.  After my flat tire experience, I’m a Zipcar believer and I am truly grateful to Debbie for all she did, but should she choose to move on to Hertz, or Avis, I will probably continue to work with Zipcar. They created a loyal client in me by making every aspect of my terrible experience as easy and painless as possible, from the app with the big orange button, to arranging all of my roadside and garage service needs, to reimbursing me for my out of pocket expense with nothing more than a cell phone photo emailed to customer service.  Debbie was absolutely integral to my positive experience, but it was the tools, resources, and relationships provided by Zipcar that allowed Debbie to so efficiently solve my problem.  Why should law firms be any different?

This will get me in trouble, but attorneys are the most expensive client service representatives ever.  That is not in any way intended to diminish their importance.  Good client service reps are absolutely necessary, but not nearly sufficient to provide a good client experience.  The greatest lawyer in the world without the right tools, resources, and relationships is still going to be a very good lawyer, but will not likely provide an optimal experience to their clients.  The tools, resources, and many of the relationships that attorneys use on behalf of their clients are provided by the firm and yet, GC’s have been known to say things like “We hire the lawyer, not the law firm.” That mindset has made the modern BigLaw firm little more than shared office space for “partners” always on the lookout for another firm that will promise them a larger cut of profits. 

To create an optimal client experience, the primary client relationship needs to be with the service provider, and the service provider in this case is the firm not the attorney. As I said in my previous article linked above, I think we are selling “access to the collective knowledge and expertise of the firm”. Otherwise, there is no benefit for the client in hiring a BigLaw attorney. They are paying a premium for the prestige of the names on the letterhead, but getting the efforts of a solo or, more likely, a couple of young associates in return.

How can we begin to change the client/firm relationship?  We’ll all have to work together.  First, Attorneys need to stop the merry-go-round of lateral defections in pursuit of a few more points, and to put some of that energy into making their current firm a more effective and pleasant place to work.  Secondly, firms need to provide tools and resources to clients that actively build relationships at the firm level and they need to develop a culture within the firm that facilitates sharing of resources and knowledge between attorneys rather than simply sharing infrastructure. Finally, clients need to demand a relationship at the firm level, and then they need to have the courage of their convictions to stick with any firm that gives them that relationship, even if “their attorney” jumps ship.  

I’m not suggesting this would be easy or even possible, but if we could strengthen the relationships between clients and firms, and change the underlying culture of our firms to share resources like any other functional service provider does, then we too could give our client’s a big orange button that says “Call Firm” to be pressed when the client is in trouble and needs someone else to do their legal thinking for them and get them back “on the road” as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Debbie was a terrific representative for Zipcar, but I wonder how my experience would have differed had I hired the customer service rep, instead of the car rental service.