Until last month, my entire legal career had been spent at large law firms. With a pretty specialized practice focusing on intellectual property, mainly patent litigation. And until last month, I never really needed to hire a lawyer, with one exception. Thankfully, it was for a good reason, to help me close on my house.
Which my lawyer handled with aplomb, so I am happy to recommend him if someone needs a good generalist solo based out of New York City. Even though my general tendency is to try and learn everything I can about something, when it came to buying a house, I really wanted nothing more than to have someone else deal with all the legal stuff. The fact that I was up for partner, and working pretty hard at my Biglaw firm that year, contributed to making me a “just get it done” type of client. Because I trusted my lawyer, and he demonstrated competence and responsiveness, I never needed to get out of that mode. We closed, I paid, and life went on.
I paid happily, and very quickly, because I had engaged someone to provide a service, and saw the results in a timely manner. Even though it was not a complicated transaction by any means, and I probably could have handled it myself, I valued my lawyer’s contribution and thus was happy to pay. I appreciated the small touches — like being handed a binder with copies of all the signed closing documents right after the closing. At the same time, I never really got engaged in the process enough to care to learn about it.
Comparing the experience I had then to my typical patent matter, the difference is stark….
I get invested in my cases, to the point where I want to know more than anyone else about the technology at issue and the business around that technology. In fact, it is probably my favorite thing about patent law, the interplay between old ideas and new technology. Likewise, I know that clients in my patent cases, whether they be inventors or corporate counsel or their company’s technical staff, do get invested in the case at hand. As a result, they rightfully hold myself and other patent counsel to a high standard. And because patent cases tend to involve many issues and long timeframes, defining “good” client service can be difficult for both clients and lawyers alike. Results matter, and so does the process. But it is a complicated and ever-changing dynamic, in my experience.
One of the interesting things about opening a new business has been the opportunity it has presented myself and my partners to play the role of client. In particular, once we decided –after obtaining input from corporate lawyers we knew, our accountant, and some of our own research — what kind of corporate structure we wanted our firm to have, we needed to actually incorporate. As a former Biglaw partner, I know that I benefited from access to high-level corporate lawyers who were willing to supply their judgment on this issue to us for free. Of course, not a lot of judgment was necessary in this instance, and I know that at many Biglaw firms, a simple selection of corporate structure and the subsequent filings would typically be considered a low-level assignment, with a junior associate overseeing a paralegal preparing the actual filing. Because we were comfortable that we had learned enough to make the decision ourselves, we saw no need to engage a corporate lawyer to supply additional “judgment.” What we needed was someone to file the necessary paperwork for us. Of course, we could have used a corporate lawyer to handle that process, but I wanted to try something different. What followed was an experience with an unnecessary amount of frustration, but thankfully that ended with our corporate filing completed. More importantly, my frustration at some of the poor client service we received reminded me of things to avoid when servicing clients of my own.
So having decided to try a “self-directed” legal services provider, what did I like and not like about the process and the company we worked with? I liked that the company sent us an overnight shipping label and agreed to expedite the handling of our order. I liked that the initial “intake” could be done online, via a very user-friendly interface. I like being in control, and doing things on my timing — more Biglaw conditioning.
Now, on to the frustrating aspects. The user interface that was provided left out a critical piece of information about filing a PLLC, namely that we would have to submit our current certificates of good standing. Not a huge problem, though I did not appreciate being told about this requirement days after our submission was made. I assumed it was a minor hiccup, and things would go smoothly from there. But they did not. What followed was nearly a month of sending over copies of other papers that we were not told about, things getting lost, and plenty of time on the phone with customer service. Despite my insistence that our order be handled under the direction of one employee so that we could have a point of contact and just get things done, that never happened. And that was probably the most frustrating thing of all.
So while I liked the (1) cost savings, (2) convenience of being able to use technology to get my order started and track its progress, and (3) the final result, the experience was unnecessarily complicated by both process and customer service issues that were avoidable — and not corrected. At bottom, a system is only as good as the effort put into making it complete, and how well it adapts when something goes wrong. My experience reminded me that part of the value a real-life lawyer provides is thoroughness and adaptability — and accountability for when things go wrong. Sure, technology can help make the delivery of end product quicker and even more user-interactive for clients who value those things. Our challenge, as a firm and more broadly as an industry, is to meld the best of the technological resources now available to us with personalized and responsive client service. Hopefully, we will always able to satisfy rather than frustrate.
Please feel free to send comments or questions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Any topic suggestions or thoughts are most welcome.
Gaston Kroub lives in Brooklyn and is a founding partner of Kroub, Silbersher & Kolmykov PLLC, an intellectual property litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on intellectual property litigation and related counseling, with a strong focus on patent matters. He can be reached at email@example.com.