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Quality On Trial: Achieving Success At A Law Firm
Award-Winning Law Firm Excels in Client Satisfaction

You’ve seen them on television shows—“L.A. Law,” “The Practice,” “Law and Order,” “Ally McBeal:” hard working attorneys fighting for their client to overcome insurmountable obstacles to balance the scales of justice.

In reality, becoming a superior law firm takes more than expert legal advice and a win-at-all-costs attitude—a client requires quality service when facing a legal battle. Nobody understands this more than Snell & Wilmer L.L.P., one of the largest law firms in the Western United States. With over 400 employees and offices in Arizona, California and Utah, Snell & Wilmer treats client satisfaction as serious business.
Snell & Wilmer excels in client service and satisfaction by identifying and applying the best practices that optimize business processes. The firm’s acronym for its quality program TQS (for Total Quality Service as opposed to Total Quality Management) even further stresses Snell & Wilmer’s dedication to client service. And this dedication to client service has paid off for Snell & Wilmer—the firm was recently recognized as a quality leader in the legal profession, and the first law firm to win Arizona’s Arthur Anderson Best Practices Award in the “Exceeding Customers’ Expectations” category.

In the Beginning
For Snell & Wilmer (Phoenix, Ariz.) there was never a question of fixing an existing problem. “Before 1993, we were doing a better job than most law firms in delivering exceptional client service,” recalls Kathleen Taddie, director of quality and client services at Snell & Wilmer and coordinator of the firm’s Best Practices Award activities. “But as we looked forward, it was no longer a matter of competing in one marketplace or region, but competing globally.”
For Snell & Wilmer to become a global firm they had to learn not just how to meet client needs, but how to exceed client needs. But when Snell & Wilmer went looking for quality programs to benchmark it took some ingenuity.

“In 1993, there were no law firms known to Snell & Wilmer against which to benchmark,” notes Taddie. “There were only two books written on quality in law firms and about a dozen good articles. So, we benchmarked other non-legal organizations and learned as much as we could from our clients.”

“Prior to embarking on its own quality program, the firm carefully monitored the progress and success of several of its clients, including MicroAge, Inc. and Holsum Bakery, during their efforts with the implementation of quality management in their respective business environment,” explains Taddie.

That spring, Snell & Wilmer held a one-day seminar on Total Quality Service (TQS) and the decision was made to begin a small quality pilot program. Two groups within the firm, the Business and Finance group and the Real Estate and Commercial Finance group, were selected to participate in this pilot program. Each group quickly saw positive results within their practice areas after incorporating TQS into their operations.

Getting Down to Business
In March 1994, following the success of the pilot program, the firm hired a full-time Director of Quality to provide the necessary expertise to effectively take the TQS initiative firm-wide. Also, in order to build an internal infrastructure and mentor the quality process, a Quality Advisory Council (QAC) was established.

“One of the QAC’s first undertakings was to rewrite the firm credo, an expression of the firm’s values that had originally been written in 1960,” explains Taddie. “With involvement of over 150 people throughout Snell & Wilmer’s four offices and input from firm founders Frank Snell and Mark Wilmer, the credo was rewritten and a credo video was produced in May 1994.”

Over the past five years, Snell & Wilmer’s TQS initiative has focused on measuring client feedback, determining critical success factors, improving communication and morale, establishing practice group goals and objectives and ways to more effectively serve their clients. All of these factors—emphasizing accessibility and communication, building relationships, hard work and up-front investment in technology and resources, contribute to Snell & Wilmer’s focus of exceeding customer expectations.

Best Practices in Action
Snell & Wilmer implemented a series of practices aimed at increasing client satisfaction. Some where simple (candy bars for employees) and some where complex (a database of legal knowledge) but each helped the law firm take its client service to a new level.
Among the practices that the firm applies, the Best Practices Award judges praised the “Kudos” program which recognizes exemplary client service with a candy bar of the same name and a monthly drawing for a $50 gift certificate. Snell & Wilmer’s “Above and Beyond” program shows appreciation to nominated employees who have gone above and beyond the call of duty. The employee also received praise from the program judges.

Another practice that helped boost client satisfaction was as simple as picking up a phone. “Clients feel that attorney accessibility is the most important aspect of their relationship with a law firm,” explains Matt Feeney, a partner at Snell & Wilmer whose practice group started the two-hour return phone call rule.

With the two-hour return call policy, call times are noted on phone message slips, and every lawyer is expected to jot down the time of the return call. And clients certainly appreciate the quick reply. James H. Dormaz, whose employer, MicroAge Inc., has a business relationship with Snell & Wilmer says, “When I call the Snell & Wilmer partner in charge of our account with a question, I get a good, prompt, pithy answer on the phone, not a 10-page memo from an associate that wanders all around the point. It’s nice to get the answer right away, because that’s where my train of thought is at the moment. And, I am not paying them to bring an associate up the learning curve.”

And when clients call, they call with questions. To have superior client service Snell & Wilmer had to develop practices that deliver answers as quickly as clients come up with questions. So the firm went digital with a Resource Bank, a database of legal forms and legal research, one of only a few in the industry. This best practice uses electronic forms and a research bank saving the firm and its clients considerable time and money. Each month updates are issued to let people know what was added to the bank and to remind younger lawyers to go there first when they’re given assignments.

The People Behind the Practices
It takes more than quickly returned calls and a database to achieve high customer satisfaction. It takes an exceptional workforce. Snell & Wilmer recognize the importance of its employees in the success of its business and its quality program.

One program (highlighted by the Best Practices judges) that helped develop great employees was the intern mentoring program. Established for first and second year attorneys, this program works by placing new hires with a partner or senior associate who will mentor and advise.

“They are to meet a minimum of once a month, create and provide training and educational opportunities and impart the firm history, tradition and culture,” explains Taddie. “In addition, they monitor productivity and contribution to firm activities and most importantly, serve as a first-line ‘sounding board’ for any problems or opportunities that may arise.”

Getting New Hires Started
The firm also prides itself on its job orientation procedures. Every employee receives a general orientation and technical training on their first day. Within the first month of being hired, all new associates attend a formal firm orientation program encompassing all aspects of the firm; firm history, ethics training, marketing guidelines, internal communications, client communications, etc. The individual practice groups take on the role of keeping everyone in the group updated and communicating to the entire group through “all-hands” meetings.
“We make every effort to ensure that we tie our evaluation process and incentive and reward programs to client satisfaction,” explains Taddie. Systems are in place throughout the organization to reward exceptional client service and evaluations are encouraged. Associates can select who they want to evaluate them and who they want present at their oral evaluation. Also, evaluators can select who they want to evaluate.

The firm has an open-door policy that promotes an easy interaction between attorneys and non-attorneys. Additionally, the firm encourages the free exchange of ideas by regular “all-hands” meetings, roundtable discussions, intranet and internet communications, a monthly newsletter and a formal and informal service recognition program.

Measures of Success
The best way to determine the success of any company is to talk to its clients. Best practices insights can come from anywhere, and Snell & Wilmer is well aware that its clients are one of the most important sources of insight.

Attorneys informally solicit feedback from their clients to gather information and determine whether they are performing up to the client’s expectations. The purpose of soliciting this feedback is to create an environment where the client can comment constructively on the quality of legal services and representation.
For larger clients using multiple practice areas and larger portions of the firm’s resources, visits provide formal face-to-face client feedback. A letter with interview questions is sent to the client in advance of the visit and a formal interview is conducted at the client’s location. Feedback is then shared with the appropriate people and formal debriefing sessions are conducted when applicable.

In-House/On-Site client seminars are held several times a year when clients are invited to discuss and address the lawyers and staff on various topics concerning their relationships.

“We are often clients of one another’s business. Candid conversation, formulating strategy on how to maximize the benefit of existing relationships and getting valuable feedback on improving customer service are beneficial for all parties,” explains Taddie. “It is this commitment to service that our clients say set us apart. We continually look for better ways to serve our clients and satisfy our internal employees’ needs,” says Taddie.

Closing Statements
Snell & Wilmer improved its business by addressing one key point. Clients are their business and to have a successful firm they have to practice client service. From this basic point the firm developed ways of operating that continually please clients and has positioned Snell & Wilmer as a top law firm. To get there it took a unique culture, a focus on the customer and on employees.

“None of the television law shows, or any shows for that matter, have adequately depicted our culture. It is truly unique. The firm’s uniqueness is drawn from its equally strong balanced commitments to superior client service and extensive community involvement. It is an environment of continual learning,” adds Taddie. While many of us realize the trials of implementing quality programs, Snell & Wilmer’s trial created a very favorable verdict for the firm and its clients.

May '99 News for a Change | Email Editor
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