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Everything I learned about being a lawyer I learned in retail

After returning from a recent haircut appointment, I realized one of my sideburns hung about half an inch below the other. I generally believe my stylist does a great job cutting my hair.  But why, then, was that detail overlooked this time? The answer may be instructive to us as attorneys.

You see, it’s not that I don’t think she is well trained, well practiced or attentive.  Over the course of cutting my hair over so many years, I’m sure it’s easy to become complacent – to become familiar and therefore not to be as critical. It is just as likely that she was distracted by our conversation about my newborn son or the latest blockbuster movie as she overlooked my lopsided haircut. But at over $40, not including gratuity, is that a reasonable excuse?

All of this got me to thinking. Do lawyers become so familiar with their clients that we might neglect important details? Is this reasonable at often over $300 an hour?  Do we provide the same level of service to our longstanding clients as we do to the prospective client from whom we hope to win business?  Thinking about these things led me to hearken back to my days working in clothing stores and restaurants for lessons on customer service and how this could apply to my legal practice.

After my first year in college, one of the few places that would hire a know-it-all college kid with no real experience was a national retail chain. From the start of the interview until the last shirt was folded, the manager stressed to me the importance of add-on sales. Buying a pair of pants? Well, then certainly you need a new belt or a shirt to go with it. New shoes? Check out our rag wool socks on sale when you buy three pairs.

There was no disguising the fact that increasing the number of items per transaction helped the company’s bottom line. But the long-term aim was to improve the shopping experience for the customer and solidify the association with our brand. Rather than capturing the single transaction, we sought to develop a relationship with the customer that brought them back to our store over and over. And it did.

I was amazed at the loyalty of some of our customers.  They would return time and again, and sometimes even search me out as the guy who helped them pick out the right duffle bag or the right flannel shirt. And each time I endeavored to improve their experience, piling items higher and higher behind the register. Asking questions.  Tossing clothes over the door of the dressing room.

Now, almost 20 years later, and through the prism of law school and an evolving legal practice, I find myself returning to those same principles. At my best I ask open-ended questions to tease out my clients’ needs. I probe my memory to recall details, not about a previous outfit worn, but about past value expressions or previous experiences with the legal profession.  At my worst, and hopefully not often, I blow through the details, respond in short, unenlightened emails, fail to look at the bigger picture.

On the other end, too much attention can lead to unintended results. I pride myself on returning emails and calls within the day, if not the hour.  But just last month, I was a little surprised to hear a client’s frustration that I could not turn around a series of documents in a matter of days. My client’s demeanor reminded me of one stately customer at a small town bistro where I worked before law school, who without hesitation asked, “So, where exactly are you when you’re not at our table?”

In his mind, service should have been seamless, as I was either taking his order, refilling his cocktail or standing in the kitchen waiting for his food to be withdrawn from the burner to be immediately delivered to his table. In my early twenties, I probably had some choice words about this gentleman among the other wait staff and the kitchen.  Looking back now, this question likely sprang from a combination of my over-attentiveness and his heightened valuation of his own circumstance. Neither may be a fault in the proper context.

If it was like any other night in this restaurant, things were likely slow. I stopped by frequently to see if anything was needed or to inquire whether they enjoyed their appetizer.  I think this is the risk to lawyers, particularly with the intrusion of technology and therefore constant connectivity, of always being available. This isn’t to say that voicemails should go unanswered or anxious emails shouldn’t get a reply, but we should not feel pressure to respond immediately to late-night emails sent over the weekend.

I think it is important that we help our clients put their present condition in the proper context. Not every letter, demand, discovery request or offer requires drop-everything-else attention.  Litigation and most corporate transactions are not the result of changes that occur over the course of a few hours, but are the product of thoughtful attention, consideration, planning and execution.

So instead of the next CLE on the most recent developments in electronic discovery, we should all go down to the mall or the hot restaurant in town and watch the sales clerk outfitting the masses or the waiter balancing the seven top with the screaming drunk at the bar. There are probably some good lessons to be learned.

Marc Gustafson is a litigator with Essex Richards in Charlotte

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