Paul Gilbert, chief executive of LBC Wise Counsel, argues that lawyers have been sucked into feeling the need to exceed expectations, when all clients want is for them to meet expectations. In fact, exceeding them could be bad for business. LBC Wise Counsel  is a Legal Futures Associate.
Have you ever filled in a customer satisfaction survey? The ones where you tick the box that best describes the service or value received. They come with a promise that it “helps us to improve our performance”, although I suspect it only really helps to give the illusion that the cold-hearted, anonymous corporate edifice actually gives a damn!
The same approach is very often taken in performance and appraisal meetings as well (I am so glad I don’t have to do these any more!).
“How would you rate X’s communication skills? Does X: Fail to meet your expectations? Partially meet your expectations? Meet your expectations? Exceed your expectations?”
As we all know there are seemingly endless HR-generated processes and forms to fill, all designed to provide insight and enlightenment… and then there is also the obligatory debate over ranking.
How do you think lawyers relate to this sort of assessment? Yep, you would be right!
Not that lawyers are much different to the general populous, I suppose, but I have to tell you that most lawyers at appraisal time are about as touchy on this subject as it is possible to get. “What do you mean I met expectation?” (Said with the same sort of sneering emphasis one should properly save for interviewing politicians on television.)
Road to nowhere
Lawyers, however, are trained to believe that merely by opening a file they have already added to the sum of significant human endeavour. The idea, therefore, that completing a piece of work might only meet expectation would be like suggesting a romantic date with Kiera Knightly might be “ok”.
And where has all this HR-inspired nonsense taken us? Precisely nowhere. There is no insight, no enlightenment, no wisdom, no learning; instead there is a stressful tussle over what constitutes either “meeting” or “exceeding” expectation.
It all comes flooding back, conversations going round in circles: “but I stayed late”, “it ruined my weekend”, “it was the other side”, the client didn’t have a clue anyway”, “no one works harder than me”, “what more could I do?” and so on.
And the rather depressing point about this sterile debate is that it is the wrong debate to have anyway.
I don’t want lawyers who EXCEED my expectations!
What is the point of that? I have an expectation, you meet it, I pay you, we move on.
Gilding the lily
Exceeding expectations smacks of gilding the lily, of over-engineering; of, frankly, wasting my time and money by doing more than was necessary.
I don’t want lawyers going the extra mile.
I want lawyers who get me safely to my destination, on time and on budget. Imagine the debate you would have with a taxi driver who cheerfully tells you: “Well sir, I am sure you will be delighted to recognise that I have gone the extra mile for you.”
You see, we have been side-tracked by a sterile debate to supposedly recognise and reward excellence. Instead of that outcome, however, we have elevated and rewarded behaviour that is slightly contrived, emotive and faux-heroic to an unprecedented level and, worse, largely ignored the lawyers who, day in day out, deliver a service that is efficient, adequate, wanted and reasonably priced.
Meeting expectation is the benchmark of excellence; exceeding expectation is damaging and probably even more damaging of trust and confidence than the actions of those lawyers who sometimes fail to meet expectation at all.
That’s not to say that expectation should equate to average or ordinary; that is not the point at all. My expectation, for example, of the caterers on my wedding day was exceedingly high, but when I grab a sandwich from a canteen I have a different expectation.
The point is that the lawyer has to actively manage expectation. What does good/great service look like, what does the experience feel like and what does it cost? Then, having set the expectation in the mind of the client, for goodness sake make sure that expectation is met. Articulate value, demonstrate the quality, render your bill, get paid… Brilliant!
I once asked a lawyer to describe the service I would get for £500 an hour. When he told me, I told him it was too fancy for my needs and could he please describe the service I would get for £400 an hour. He was completely stumped by the idea. He didn’t get the work, but the firm who could describe the £400 an hour service did.
The times we need a rocket scientist are those rare times when we need to fly in the stratosphere; for the most part we can sit in economy in a 747.
I don’t want to sound like an old curmudgeon, but it concerns me greatly that we have been fooled into playing pointless performance games which have been made up by PR and HR professionals and we have lost sight of what our clients actually want us to do.
No time-wasters please
In a nutshell, it is this: please don’t let me down; be there when you should be, not always when I want you to be (and explain the difference); don’t overcharge, deliver on your commitments, work hard, keep me in touch (because I hate surprises) and be good company. What a great lawyer that would be.
So do not, whatever you do, favour gimmicks over substance, consider that dramatic flourishes persuade anyone of value or think that working all night is anything other than a sign of an inefficient office and/or a failing marriage.
If you strive to exceed expectation, you may be wasting your time and/or my money. Please, please, please just do the job and meet my expectations.