As you probably know, the Boston Bruins won their first Stanley Cup since the Nixon Administration. I’m no kind of hockey fan, but as a Boston sports fan, I took a passing interest in it. Which is to say that I watched Game 7 on Wednesday. Mine was a short ride on the bandwagon. (I mean, it’s June. It’s baseball time.)
But Boston is a big sports town, having now won all three major North American sports championships (plus hockey, see what I did there?) in just a seven-year span. The closest any other city has come to that is 11 years (and that’s New York, with two teams in each sport).
But to be fair, the Bruins do have many fans in the Boston area. (Although apparently an entire season was recently canceled because of labor strife, and I’m pretty sure no one noticed.) Many of those fans made their way into Boston on Saturday to watch the Bruins’ victory boat. Police estimated that a million people came into the city to celebrate. Many of them parked in my suburban neighborhood, because we live near the end of one of the subway lines. Because that’s what you want: scads of drunken hockey fans parking in front of your house. Could have been worse, though; in Vancouver, the fans of the runner-up Canucks basically set the place on fire.
But some fans had trouble getting into town because of spotty rail service, and they weren’t too happy about it. What important lesson does this hold for small-firm lawyers?
The deluge of black-and-gold-clad revelers on a Saturday morning stressed the capabilities of the MBTA, the local transit authority known as the T. Sunday’s Boston Globe reported that many fans were stranded on commuter-rail platforms for trains that never came. The T’s spokesman, Joe Pesaturo, told the Globe that the T was completely prepared for the celebration and that it handled nearly double the amount of riders as it would on an ordinary workday. These words probably didn’t mollify the people who weren’t able to make it into town.
In Christopher Girard’s article for the Globe, there was a consistent refrain from several unhappy, would-be passengers. It wasn’t the delay or the dearth of trains that made them angry; it was the lack of information. Each commuter-rail station has a couple of those signs with scrolling red LED letters — the kind of signs that look like they were bought at Radio Shack in the late seventies. Naturally, these signs provided no information beyond the date and time and the T’s sincere gratitude (“THANK YOU FOR RIDING THE T”). It’s 2011: I’m fairly certain that the technology exists to give riders real-time updates and explanations. That little change would have made all the difference to the fans.
If you think about it, this is an interesting phenomenon. Telling the passengers that they have a 45-minute wait, or that a train is stuck in Reading or whatever, doesn’t improve their actual situation. They still have to wait just as long. But the information gives the riders comfort. And a sense that they’re in control of their destinies. Now they can decide whether to wait or go home and watch it on TV.
Contrast this to my travel situation the day before. I had a meeting in Philadelphia Friday afternoon with some experts in legal project management. I flew Southwest Airlines. The flight down from Boston was largely empty and uneventful. The flight back in the evening was less easy. Another airline (United) had a massive computer glitch that delayed flights all around the country. The delays meant that Southwest couldn’t clear our gate in time, so they moved us and our plane to a different gate. While we were waiting to board, the ground-crew guy got on the loudspeaker and explained the reason for the move.
After we boarded, we pushed back and began taxiing. And then we stopped. Right away, Captain Joe (or whatever; Southwest people apparently only have first names) got on the intercom and told us that there were 20 planes ahead of us waiting to take off, which meant that we were going to sit there for about 40 minutes. Some of us groaned a bit at hearing this, but at least we knew our fate. In the end, the delay was closer to 30 minutes. Despite the delay, we in the cabin were pretty content.
The lesson for lawyers is this: Always keep your clients informed. Even if things aren’t going well, or if you only have limited information to give, doing so gives the clients a feeling of control. They understand what’s going on, and they’re comforted by the fact that you know what’s going on, and that you’re handling it. It’s not about making excuses or placing blame (the Southwest guys never mentioned that United had caused the delays, even though they could have). It’s about telling the clients that you know what’s going on, and that you’re dealing with it. Which means that now they know, and they don’t have to worry about it. The actual situation — like being stuck in a crowded plane on a crowded taxiway — hasn’t changed. But their comfort level has, because they feel more in control. By keeping your clients in the loop, by informing them of the things they need to know, they will worry less, and they’ll respect you more.
More than once, I’ve had general counsel tell me that the thing they hate the most is when they’re lying awake at night worrying about a case. That shouldn’t be their job; that’s the job of outside counsel. By being proactive and letting them know promptly — before they ask — you take away that worry. You give them comfort and a feeling of being in control.
Junior lawyers at small firms have an advantage over their Biglaw counterparts for this simple reason: they’re much more likely to actually speak with clients. This is a very important skill to learn. Just pick up the phone and tell your client what’s going on. Don’t wait until they call you. Your client will appreciate the update, even if the news isn’t great.
Otherwise, your clients will feel like those Bruins fans still waiting for their train, not knowing if it’s ever going to come.
Jay runs Prefix, LLC, a firm that helps lawyers learn how to value and price legal services. Jay Shepherd 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.