Here’s How to Beat the Big Law Firm

“We can’t do what the big firms do” is a common refrain among lawyers in smaller firms. “We don’t have the resources” they continue.

I’ve been wearing Nike Air Max shoes for the past year.

I bought my first pair in Croatia. I paid some insane amount for them in a random store in a rundown mall. Buying brand-name athletic shoes outside of a limited number of countries can be ridiculously expensive. But I pay it in order to get something familiar. I travel light, so I only have room for one pair of shoes and they need to get the job done.

The Air Max shoes were fantastic. I often have to replace my shoes every three months, because they get worn down and my feet begin to hurt. The Air Max shoes lasted nearly nine months. I was impressed.

That’s why, during my US visit in May, I bought another pair.

When things go wrong …

I’ve been wearing them for about two months and they squeak. I tried everything to get the squeak to stop. I switched out the insoles–they still squeak. I thought maybe wearing them in would stop the squeak. Nope, nothing worked. They’re just squeaky.

Sadly, this particular pair of Nike shoes is defective. There’s something wrong and they squeak with every step. You know that sound your sneakers make if you walk on a marble floor on a rainy day? In a quiet room? That sound.

I went to a Nike store in Moscow. I asked if there was anything they could do, but there wasn’t. I couldn’t tolerate the squeak any longer, so I bought a new pair of the very same shoes right there in the store. Squeak problem solved.

That’s when I decided to call Nike. In fact, I called twice because I was so disappointed in the outcome of the first call.

I explained the situation to the first Nike representative. He told me I’d have to return the squeaky pair to the dealer.

I explained that returning the shoes, from Russia, would cost nearly as much as I had paid for the shoes. I went on to explain that I travel full-time and don’t have room to carry them around until I return to the US in May of next year.

I told him that I understood that my situation was unusual, that I was asking for an exception, and asked if there was ANYTHING they could do.

He offered me a twenty-percent-off coupon for and we parted ways.

I called back ten minutes later. I got a different representative and told my sad story again.

I pushed a little. I acknowledged the unusual nature of my scenario. I understood, and expressed to the representative that I was asking for special consideration. I emphasized that I had bought one pair, then another, and then, only the day before, a third pair.

“Is there anything you can do? A coupon won’t really help me. Can we escalate to a manager? Can’t you make an exception? I’m a loyal customer with an unusual situation–is there anything at all that can be done?” I even mentioned that I was at that very moment wearing a Nike shirt.

Big firms make them worse

The Nike representatives followed their systematic approach. They each told me how sorry they were for my problem.

They listened to me go on and on about the squeak. I offered to send a recording of the noise I’d made with my phone.

But in the end, the best they could do was a twenty-percent-off coupon for their online store.

Step-by-step, methodically, they disappointed me, crushed my spirit, broke me down, and left me wondering why they cared so little about keeping me as a customer.

I’d jumped through hoops in foreign countries to get their shoes. Are they unwilling to jump through hoops for me?

Because they don’t care–systematically

The Nike people stuck to the system. They adhered to the script.

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“We’re really sorry …” they said repeatedly when I called.

I appreciated the apology, but it was clear that it was part of the system. Each apology came with that offer for a twenty-percent-off coupon on

My problem couldn’t be solved with a coupon.

We’ve all been there. We understand that the call-center representative is giving us runway to exhaust our emotions. They want us to get it out of our system. They make sympathetic noises, they engage in active listening and repeat key phrases, they apologize repeatedly.

It doesn’t have to be that way

But some companies take action and do something to retain the customer.

Zappos, another shoe seller, has earned a well-deserved reputation for keeping their customers happy. They consistently take exceptional steps. If a twenty-percent-off coupon would make the customer happy, they send thirty percent off. When a customer died and her grieving daughter discovered unopened Zappos boxes in her closet, Zappos sent a big box to collect the shoes, refunded the account, and sent flowers.

The Nike people aren’t given the same latitude to fix things. They put their people on the phone armed with only apologies and coupons.

You’re nimble enough to make things better

You, unlike most large firms, are able to adapt to the circumstances of the moment. You can turn left when the client needs to go left, and then you can immediately turn right if that’s what required. You’re quick, nimble, and agile enough to go in the direction that pleases the client.

You’re able to listen to the client and apply custom solutions to every problem. That’s invaluable.

You’re able to listen, understand, and adapt to the particular needs and circumstances required by the client in the moment.

When clients need to feel heard and understood, you’re able to deliver. When clients need something different, you can deliver different. When clients need something special, you can deliver special.

Be wary of big firm envy: it’s a trap

It’s tempting to think of problem-solving in an exclusively systematic manner. It’s tempting to create processes to address every possible concern that might arise. It’s tempting to automate your business so much that problems solve themselves.

But wait, you say. Are you not constantly telling us to systematize everything? That everything is a repeatable system?

Systems are awesome right up to the point where they apologize and offer the client twenty percent off, when the client needs something different. They’re wonderful–until they break the relationship with your customer. Systems can’t solve every problem. There has to be a system for dealing with system failure, and it has to kick in before the client melts down.

Every institutional advantage comes with some kind of drawback. It isn’t always big, it isn’t always exploitable, but in this case, the systems that allow the big firms to remain big give you the opportunity to create a massive advantage.

Sometimes the system needs to be “STOP THE SYSTEM.” Sometimes we need to hit the big red button on the assembly line and talk to people as if they are real people.

Big companies and big law firms often find themselves victimized by their own systematic approach to problem solving. They’re unable to step back from the system and actually solve the problem by meeting the needs of the customer. They simply can’t justify the disruption to the process for a single client. Smaller firms function closer to the customer. They hear what’s said, they’re engaged with the feedback, they’re sufficiently nimble to respond with new solutions to new problems.

You can’t do what the big firms do–you can do better

The big firms are stuck. They grow, their systems expand, but their bureaucracy solidifies. A client who is upset about billing gets handed from the lawyer to an assistant to the billing team to a supervisor, by which point the client is caught in a web of people following the rules and failing to solve the problem.

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And if the problem is bigger, like when the client feels there’s inadequate communication or a mistake has been made, the system often completely freezes them out, because the flow-chart simply has no more options.

Life is better for clients in smaller law firms.

You’re flexible. You’re concerned about the client’s concern. You’re able to intervene immediately when a problem arises, and you’re able to offer a compassionate, understanding solution. That’s your advantage. It’s bigger than many of us imagine.

We can’t do what the big firms do. We can do better.

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