Friday, February 17, 2012

Perception is Reality.

Waiting Area at the Nutmeg Lawyer's Office (former gang bar)
As a high school kid, I was able to find a part time job working for a well known attorney.  Successful in his practice, he made a name for himself during his stint as a federal prosecutor working on some high profile cases.  Retiring from his state job, he went into private practice and opened a well to do firm in Connecticut.  I was blown away by his offices located in a grand Victorian mansion.  Entering the imposing office you had to walk up a hand carved staircase to the waiting area where one found an imposing marble fireplace.  Every associate attorney had a fireplace in their office.

Although just a "gofer",  the experience gave me a chance to observe a successful attorney in his natural habitat. Each morning, he would take several minutes to walk around the office.   The daily routine involved him fixing crooked carpets, arranging misplaced magazines, and picking up an occasional empty candy wrapper.  Naturally,  I assumed he had a disorder.  I asked his secretary if she thought he finally snapped after years of law practice.   I learned my old mentor had been doing this for years.   His daily routine included a meticulous walk through the office.  He wanted every aspect of the client's experience to be positive.  Were the magazines out of date?  What could the client observe from the waiting area?  Did they see a cluttered office or a well organized operation?  Did the receptionist leave empty fast food bags out on her desk in view of the clients?  Did she greet clients when they walked in and offer them a cup of coffee?  He would even have friends call the office to see how the receptionist answered the phone.  Was the receptionist friendly?  Did she sound professional?  OK, maybe he was a little nuts.  When I asked him why he bothered with the routine he replied "Perception is reality."   Years later, I found myself taking a page from his neurotic activity.  I became a nutcase too when I started my own law practice.  

Now I am not suggesting one needs to invest in a Victorian mansion with multiple fireplaces.  But you can make your office look pretty nice on a limited budget.  In my own case, we opened our firm in a space that actually once housed a bar frequented by gang members.  A strip club was down the street.  Despite these setbacks, I decided to put in a little elbow grease.  I knew the city was planning to revitalize the area.  Tough anti blight ordinances were put in place.  The strip club was bought out.  It now houses an elegant restaurant that serves salmon with mango salsa and lobster ravioli.  Empty storefronts were filled with day spas and delis.  An empty gas station was transformed into a ballroom dance school. We gutted the old gang bar and put in hardwood and granite floors. Instead of buying boring cookie cutter office furniture, I went out and bought some elegant desks from a place that sold used office furniture provided by area corporations.  Every time an executive wanted to upgrade his office, the company would sell off the desks to this company.  (I got a used hand carved $5000 desk for around $700 bucks).   I wanted to make sure that visitors knew they were in a successful law office.  My grand leather chair was discovered in a Salvation Army for 50 bucks.  My aunt sewed up some curtains for me.  I purchased a cappuchino machine and a few subscriptions to popular magazines.   A bought a couch from a store in New Haven that sold used furniture from hotels who were renovating or went belly up.

Of course I am not suggesting a nice law office is more important than the quality of your work.  Obviously a fancy leather couch will do you no good if you happen to be a horrible attorney.  But I can report that we have been getting a higher caliber of clientele since we instituted the changes. People seem to enjoy referring business to our firm.  Entering our office, clients are greeted and offered a cappuchino and can peruse a number of magazines.  Because we have a large Polish client base, we also offer magazines and chocolates from Poland.  I agree, some of this may sound superficial, but it works.  Clients are automatically given the perception that we are a successful firm.  I find they are more likely to refer our services if they feel they have been given great service.  Seeking legal help can be pretty stressful.  We try to make our clients feel as comfortable as possible.

Artwork purchased from a street vendor
for ten bucks.  Bust from Marshalls for a twenty.
Marble stand from Salvation Army -Ten bucks.
The changes to our office were not limited to the aesthetics of our office space.  We instituted a policy to call clients back within 24 hours. We began sending followup letters thanking clients for their patronage.  It was my goal that each client felt the service they paid for was exceptional from start to finish. So this morning, I walked into my office and looked around.  Were the magazines out of date?  Were the rugs moved out of place?  When the client sits in the waiting room, do they see a cluttered mismanaged office or a well run machine?  Is there clutter on the receptionist's desk?  When a client calls my office, how are they greeted?  I may have to call her later today with a disguised voice.  I think I'll try an English accent this time.

1 comment:

Steven Basche said...

Great article. Looking at the pictures makes me want to ditch my desk, re-frame my diplomas and shred about 6 banker boxes of documents. As I shift my practice away from litigation to estate planning, I am realizing that I need to see clients in my office more, and need some of the nice touches your have displayed. Next time I'm in New Britain, I'm going to pop in to see it in person.