I have a fondness for rural courts even though my entire experience with actual litigation has been limited to a few uncontested matters in which my chief role was to greet the judge, confirm that the opposing party had been properly notified and still was not present, and thank the judge when everything concluded. Perry Mason I’m not.
For me, rural courthouses and the people who staff them (professionals all) still engender a sense of respect for tradition, for the law. They seem to demand an older (perhaps antiquated) ideal of courtesy and gentile behavior; these are, after all dignified buildings that still command a place of pride in their communities.
Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.— Henry David Thoreau
The small town lawyer’s practice seems to ebb and flow with the seasons and within each season. There is steady work in the late fall after harvest and throughout the winter until that moment when the days have lengthen sufficiently to start to stir thoughts of spring with in a human’s soul (barring the important holidays of course – come Christmas week and the first week of deer season and client calls drop off precipitously).
Then there is summer ; those long lazy days of summer, days where the sun’s rays languish late into the evening and the heat and humidity are tailor-made for sweet tea and porch-settin’ – days where the most pressing thing on your plate should be emulating your dog’s efforts to sprawl across the lawn under the spreading crown of a maple and become one with the shade, waiting for the next thunder shower to walk across the countryside sweeping the heat and humidity away. And yet, the rural lawyer will, more likely than not , see that the pace of work quickens as the days grow hot and long. Some days it seems like summer’s weather has more effect on client inquires than one’s marketing efforts; an uptick in client calls is a sure predictor that a storm front is on its way; if they can’t be out in the fields, they are more willing to come into your office.
Rain is not the only thing that seems to drag clients into the office. Increases in client load also follow the predictable lulls in the normal farming routine – those periods between the end of one major event and the beginning of the next; it seems that the great sabbats of farming (spring planting, hay cutting, harvest) are no longer marked by joyous, hedonistic rituals but by dealing with matters legal, medical, or dental. While I generally approve of any tradition that results in an increase in business, I am somewhat saddened by the loss of the more ancient ways – then again, I am sure that the mere thought of lawyers cavorting naked about a bonfire under the full moon on a warm July evening did more to kill off these ancient rituals than simple modern-day practicalities.
It seems that I have, at some time in the recent past, brought myself to the attention of that imp of that controls the quality of customer service and have been blessed with an odd assortment of well-intentioned, but altogether hideous encounters with those call center denizens relegated to direct consumer contact. Now, please don’t get me wrong, I have great respect for those whose job it is to m interact with the likes of me when, through no fault of theirs, a product goes south. It has to be one of the world’s greatest thankless tasks – when it goes right, no one notices and when it goes completely catawampus the complaints fall like rain from the sky.
First, let me be honest, I abhor PayPal – it is a visceral thing with no logical explanation, no reality-based justification, and does not stem from any fault of the service itself – and tend to use it only when circumstances force it upon me. Then only regular use I have for it is to pay for a single annual subscription to an on-line service. This means that I typically access PayPal once every year or two. It also means that whatever familiarity I had with the user interface is guaranteed to be out of date and completely inaccurate. While I got though my biannual task some imp lurking somewhere between my desktop and PayPal’s servers inserted the notion that I had some interested in merchant services. Now, I do have to give the sales folk credit for their follow-up and their tenacity – e-mails inquiries were closely followed by phone calls 5 minutes later. It was only by sheer happenstance that my schedule had me out of the office (the contact pattern was e-mail, phone call, wait 48 hours, repeat) during the sales contact 3-peat cycle. By the end of the entire debacle, I had a mild twinge of regret when I received the e-mail telling me that I was being removed from the salesman’s contact list.
For some reason, I’ve been getting calls from salesfolk who feel that it is necessary to be less than honest in their intentions to get past my receptionist and voicemail – a tactic that has me wasting time scanning caller id and googling unfamiliar area codes each time an unknown caller opens a conversation with “I’d like to discuss a possible [fill in practice area here] matter with you”; a tactic that seems to have been pioneered by a few legal referral services but that has now been picked up, by all groups, Mediate.com – a mediator referral source. It seems strange that a referral service for mediators (a group that tends to want to create trusting environments) should choose deceit as it’s opening gambit.
Now, I will admit a fondness for freebies and was intrigued by the Dan Kennedy/GKIC offer of free marketing information. After entering an e-mail address in the appropriate place, I was redirected to a web page where I could claim my “free” information for only $19.99 (shipping and handling). Not having sufficient interest in the material to invest just south of $20 in the “free” package I left the page and headed out to greener pastures. Again, I will give the GKIC auto-responder kudos for follow-up; it has diligently been sending me various daily e-mails explaining exactly why I should invest a measly $20 for this wonderful “free” gift.
From a distance, I can get a chuckle from my recent customer service debacles – it is amazing how time can turn annoyance into perspective. And with perspective, comes the basic reminder that a quality customer experience does not come from the end product, but from the entire interaction. I should point out that, with the possible exception of Act 2, my annoyance arose not from poor service, but from over-zealous service; after all, the lack of follow-up is the leading cause of lost sales though I think that there is supposed to be some delay between contacts (there’s constant contact and then there’s CONSTANT contact). So, I have to thank the various actors for reminding me:
To listen to the customer – understanding is far more difficult and far more valuable than simply hearing;
Be up front with the customer and set the correct expectations; and
While follow-up is good, there are fine line between follow-up, too much follow-up, and stalking;
Well, it’s official – Becoming a Rural Lawyer is here. Like RuralLawyer the blog, RuralLawyer the book is designed to help you decide if you’re meant to practice in the 128,000 small towns dotting the US landscape. Becoming a Rural Lawyer looks at the myths of practicing in small towns, discusses emerging areas of rural practice, talks about the rhythms and (unwritten) rules of small town life, and includes advice, tips, and words of wisdom from rural lawyers from across the US.
Becoming a Rural Lawyer is available through Amazon.com (where I welcome your impressions of the book).
Quality in a product or service is not what the supplier puts in. It is what the customer gets out and is willing to pay for. A product is not quality because it is hard to make and costs a lot of money, as manufacturers typically believe. This is incompetence. Customers pay only for what is of use to them and gives them value. Nothing else constitutes quality. — Peter Drucker
Having gotten hooked on the concept that it is possible to engineer a consumer’s experience, I’m becoming more aware of the clues I use to evaluate quality service and I’m quickly coming to the conclusion that any consumer experience that adheres to old adage: “don’t piss on my boots then try to tell me it’s raining” can claim to be providing minimally functional customer service. Given this relatively low bar, coming across truly horrific customer service is a rare event; yet recently, I’ve had the misfortune to walk away from a pair of consumer experiences with fairly damp footwear.
The first sandal sprinkling came from a small start-up marketing firm looking to expand into my neck of the woods. I like working with young companies, usually they are all teeth, shiny ideas, and enthusiasm. In this case, regrettably, it seemed that the teeth had been turned inward, the shiny ideas tarnished and the enthusiasm replaced by rancor as the failing interpersonal relationship between the company’s principles collapsed overnight. Now, I must commend these folks for letting me know (when it became evident that their personal differences were adversely impacting their working relationship) that they would no longer be able to meet with me. However, I could have done without the acrimony and personal tales of woe that accompanied the statements. It’s not that I’m not interested in “done me wrong” melodramas – I’m always on the look out for the next great country song lyric – but trying to engender sympathy just to poach business from the other is just plain icky (besides, I do family law and have learned the family law lawyer’s manta of “it ain’t my problem”). Continue reading Don’t Tell Me It’s Raining
Rural communities pride themselves on their independent spirit and the idea that an individual or a community can accomplish anything if they just set their mind to it. This is the land of do-it-yourself; there are few things these folks won’t or haven’t done be it a simple matter (say rebuilding a tractor’s motor) or the more complex (building a home). Sure, they’ll hire a “pro” to handle the tricky bits, but out here the term “pro” can mean “someone with more tools than you” or “someone who’s done it at least once” – it does not, necessarily, mean “someone with actual training, skill and expertise”.
This do-it-yourself spirit also extends to things like sewer and water – things generally considered basic infrastructure items in metropolitan areas. Given the lack of population density, private sewer and water systems are far more cost-effective than their public utility equivalents; when the distance between homes is measured in terms of miles (or fractions of miles) and not feet or yards, it is hard to recoup the cost needed to install and maintain a public water system. And, for the most part, private systems work well and once installed are reliable and simple to maintain – that is until they stop working and you realize that getting water out of the ground is a bit more complex than simply turning a tap.
One of the advantages of being in solo practice is that it’s fairly easy to get your boss’s OK to stay home and deal with the crisis du jour. One of the advantages of being a rural solo is that your clients understand when you call them at 7:00 AM to tell them you can’t meet with them that day because your well pump is out and you are hand-watering your livestock. The big disadvantage is that once you’ve cleared your calendar, you now have to (a) actually see to your livestock one bucket at a time, and (b) fix your well pump – if you are lucky the problem is electrical, above ground and easy to fix (provided you remember to turn the circuit breaker off first), if not, then there’s a couple of hundred feet of slimy, wet pipe that needs to be pulled out of the ground and it’s time to call in a pro.
Besides putting a kink in your morning ablutions, this rural fascination with DIY can put a kink in a rural law practice. It is the rare rural client who’ll see a lawyer at the first sign of a legal problem (cherish these people for they make your life simpler), most will either put things off until the last moment or try to handle things themselves. While these DIY’ers can have significant impact on your bottom line (inevitably, it costs far more to fix a problem than prevent one), they represent a far more valuable marketing opportunity and can become some of your biggest fans. When the DIY’er reaches the call-the-pro stage, they are (a) looking to resolve a very immediate problem and (b) are at a very teachable moment – if you can find a satisfactory, cost-effective solution and show them in a non-judgmental way (a) how much more cost-effective this solution would have been if… or (b) how many more options would have been available if … these do it at the last-minute consumers can be transformed into loyal call-at-the-first-sign clients — plus, pulling someone’s butt out of the fire (it may be a small fire to you, but it’s a big fire to them) is always good for positive word-of-mouth advertising.
Now, it’s time to get back to watering the critters.
Once in the dark of night,Inflamed with love and wanting, I arose(O coming of delight!)And went, as no one knows, When all my house lay long in deep repose —Saint John of the Cross
One of the more nerve-racking things about public speaking is the wait between the speaking engagement and the receipt of the program evaluation sheets. It’s a giddily self-deluding period where, based on the positive feedback from the 3 people who talked to you in the 5 minutes between speakers, you are sure that all went well and that you are on the road to becoming the next great orator of our times. Then the evaluation sheets arrived and you realize that it will be some time before you are a threat to Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King or Emmeline Pankhurst. But, as often is the case, it is the comments and not the numerical evaluations that strike a chord , and it is one of these comments that I would like to take a moment to respond to. The writer states:
Rural [law] equals less rich (not necessarily ‘poor’). At age 28, I was desperate for a job, so I moved to a small town to work with an experienced attorney who is nearing retirement. Now, almost 7 years later, I want to leave and will if I can. Modest income clients don’t (or won’t) pay attorney fees even though we charge much less per hour than attorneys in urban areas. Fact is, attorneys in rural areas make far less than in urban areas, often have bad clients, and can get better & more interesting jobs elsewhere.
As our young writer has travelled halfway down life’s path, let me play Virgil to his Dante, and let our journey begin not in our Dante’s dark wood or in the proponent’s idealized celestial sphere, but rather at the foot of the craggy mountain of boots-on-the-ground reality. Young Dante, I’ve yet to run across a lawyer (big city or small town) who has not had at least one the-grass-is-greener moment at some time or other in their career. Lawyering is a tough slog for anyone who gives half a damn about doing the best possible job they can for each client, and it sure doesn’t help that, for the average lawyer, it sure ain’t the high-paying, jet-setting, celebrity career the law school brochures described. Even I must admit to having the occasional lustful thought about packing it all in and heading off to look for a quiet associate’s position with a regular salary. However, if this is not merely a passing fancy but is one of those dark nights of the soul, then it is far better to move on to those greener pastures than to unhappily till the same dismal furrow. But before you go, talk to someone (a mentor, a friend, your local branch of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers); perhaps there are other options out there and it may be easier to fix what you have than to start something new.