Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Small Firms, Big Lawyers, one of Above the Law’s new columns for small-firm lawyers.

No, not in the way you think. I’m not talking about E-tickets and giant bow-tied mice and screaming, overtired kids being dragged around by the half-crazed parents determined to get their money’s worth. (“Have fun, dammit! Have fun!”) I mean in the way that the company, Walt Disney, creates a consistently positive and memorable experience year round for people from all over the world.

Whatever your impressions or memories of Disney World, most people agree that the company’s ability to make people happy is unrivaled. Executives and managers from companies in every industry pay thousands of dollars to study how the company does it at the Disney Institute. And the Institute even published a book on how to Disneyify your company called Be Our Guest. You can get the book at Amazon for about ten bucks; I recommend it.

So what can your law firm do to create the kind of world-class service that Mickey would be proud of? Let’s discuss….

Just like Disney and other companies have done, you can adopt “service standards.” These standards, or values, are how you measure your performance in delivering on your implicit promise to your clients. That promise, which the book calls your “service theme,” is really just the “why” that I talked about last week. It’s your firm’s reason for being. Disney’s is quite simple: “To create happiness.”

But the service theme needs concrete actions to fulfill that promise, and the service standards are the way to measure and assess whether those actions are getting the job done. The Disney Institute identifies the four standards that allow Disney to measure and make sure that the Company and its employees (called “cast members”) are meeting their promise to their guests. The four standards are safety, courtesy, show, and efficiency, in descending order of importance.

  • Safety comes first, because an unsafe guest is an unhappy one. Every ride and attraction is designed to the highest levels of safety possible.
  • Courtesy is next, with employees being heavily trained to make sure that each guest feels like royalty.
  • Show: Disney treats its guests walking around the parks as if they were watching an unending performance — the “show.” That’s why you never see a performer wearing a Tomorrowland costume wandering through Frontierland. Instead, cast members use a system of underground utility corridors (called “utilidors”) to move around the park. (See the secret map here.)
  • Efficiency (formerly capacity), which is devoted to making sure that guests can move around the parks with the least amount of hassle and waiting time.

By using these simple, easy-to-remember service standards, Disney can make sure that everything its cast members do is focused on delivering the promise to make the guests happy.

Other companies have similar service standards. You might not care for McDonald’s, but you know that a Big Mac that you get in Dubuque will taste the same as one you get in Dubai. The four service standards for Mickey D’s are quality, service, cleanliness, and value. (These are explained in this McDonald’s of Canada factsheet.) These are the standards by which all McDonald’s restaurants are measured.

So how can you use service standards in your law firm? Don’t just copy from Disney and McDonald’s; safety and cleanliness are not apt to be at the top of your list. As the book says:

[L]ike your service theme, your organization’s service standards will surely be different from the standards at Walt Disney World. Nevertheless, they are the deliverables of the service theme and they define and specify the criteria by which your service decisions will be made and judged.

You first need to identify what your theme or purpose or promise is. Maybe if you’re a plaintiffs’ employment lawyer, it’s something like “To help workers get treated fairly by their employers.” Or if you’re a management-side lawyer like me: “To help employers stick it to their employees.” (I kid.) Or if you’re a corporate lawyer: “To help big corporations mana— zzzzzz.” *wakes with a start; wipes drool off keyboard*

Once you’ve identified your promise, you then need to develop a set of simple, measurable criteria to make sure you’re meeting that promise. Here are the standards I developed for Shepherd Law Group. I’m not saying that they’re the be-all and end-all; they work for us, but they may very well not work for your firm. Our four standards are:

  • Innovation: From its start 13 years ago, our firm has sought to make innovation its first priority. If other firms are doing something a particular way, we try to find a different way. Our biggest innovation was abandoning the billable hour in 2006. Other innovations have included jettisoning legalese in favor of plain English, setting up an early client extranet, outlawing TImes New Roman, and replacing citation sentences with footnotes. (I’m not saying that they’re all a big deal.) As with all innovations, some work, and some fizzle out. My plan to replace associates with spider monkeys never really got off the ground.
  • Collegiality: You can’t work here if you aren’t going to make an effort to get along with your coworkers. We usually eat lunch together, we often get Starbucks or drinks together, and we rarely close our office doors. Collegiality extends to our dealings with opposing counsel, too. We always grant extensions, and we’re much more likely to pick up the phone when we get a demand letter instead of responding by mail. Since we don’t bill by the hour, we can take the time to chat with clients about their families, or about the Red Sox and their chances to win the 2011 World Series (spoiler alert: mortal lock).
  • Ethics: I know, I know. This seems like a table stake. All lawyers are supposed to be ethical. There are, like, rules and things on this. Maybe so. But for us, it’s never up for debate. If there’s a court or conduct rule on the subject, we follow it to the letter. If there’s no rule, we try our best to make the most ethical choice we can. By elevating this basic requirement to one of our four service standards, we ensure that we never skate close to the line.
  • Dash: This is the hardest one to explain. The best American English dictionary, The New Oxford American Dictionary, defines “dash” as “impetuous or flamboyant vigor and confidence; panache.” I don’t know about the “impetuous” part, but I kind of like the sound of “panache.” For me, it means not doing things in a way that comes across as “lawyerly.”

Anyway, for better or for worse, those are our firm’s service standards. They even make up a nice little acronym, though I don’t really see what I can do with “ICED.” But having these easy-to-remember service standards helps us focus on fulfilling our promise to clients. So grab a pad of paper or a whiteboard and your colleagues and start brainstorming on what your firm’s service standards are.

In the meantime, I’ll be looking for some misplaced spider monkeys.

Disclosure: As previously mentioned, we participate in the Amazon Associates program — i.e., we make money when you make purchases from Amazon through the links on our site. Thanks for your support.


Jay runs Prefix, LLC, a consultancy that helps lawyers learn how to value and price legal services. Jay Shepherd has also spent 13 years running the Boston management-side employment-law boutique Shepherd Law Group. He writes the ABA Blawg 100 honoree The Client Revolution, which focuses on reinventing the business of law, and Gruntled Employees, a workplace blog. Follow Jay on Twitter at @jayshep, or email him at [email protected].


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