Rhoades McKee 'drills deeply' into intensifying client-centered focus

Rhoades McKee attorneys Pamela Cross and Mark Smith played key roles in the firm’s recent planning process.


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

“On a day-to-day basis you’re focused on client matters and the internal fundamentals of making a business this big succeed. You forget to look up and say, ‘What’s on the horizon?’ But that’s not the way we want to be,” says Mark Smith of Rhoades McKee about the planning process the firm incorporated into its recent annual meeting.

Smith, attorney Pam Cross, and attorney Paul McCarthy make up Rhoades McKee’s executive committee. The three worked with the facilitators to design a process that highlighted the critical issues but was streamlined enough to be implemented in a timely fashion.

In order to do that, the team wisely narrowed down the topics to those that appeared most pressing.

They chose three topic areas for participants: technology and innovation; lateral hires; and client service/business development.

“Mark and Paul and I were each in a different group. We’d asked them to fill out a survey identifying their thoughts with regard to those sub-areas. The morning was sort of a vision piece about where the industry is now and where it is going, the rest of the day’s work was about how the three areas intersected with what business clients expect and how we can be responsible to those clients,” Cross said.

Holly Barocio of Akinas Corporation kicked off the meeting, held in Chicago, with an overview of national trends in client service.

“The morning speaker talked about how everyone now expects that their lawyers are going to be competent and expects them to be skilled, so you can’t use that to distinguish yourself,” Smith explained.

Added Cross, “The directive for each of the groups really was to come up with a plan that was doable within no more than 18 months. We didn’t want to come back with all these ideas that wouldn’t become reality, but rather a few that we would really put into action.”

After the retreat, Cross, McCarthy and Smith met for a few hours and pulled the plan together.

Paul McCarthy, a litigator with specialized training in business valuation who also does dispute resolution and family law, serves as the firm’s President.

Cross, whose focus is estate planning and administration and probate litigation, has a passion for educating other professionals. She was an adjunct professor at Cooley Law School and speaks frequently for the State Bar of Michigan and the Michigan Association of Certified Public Accountants.

She notes, “We’d already realized that thinking about the client experience is critical to us. So this is really the third step to our process. When we moved to these offices, we designed the space specifically to make clients welcome and comfortable. We then redesigned our website to serve that same end, so we’re accessible and friendly and easy to work with.”

A well-produced video greets visitors to rhoadesmckee.com, in which Cross plays a role. At one point she says about the firm, ““When we go through tough times, every lawyer here, every staff person rallies around you as a person.”
The strongest outcome of the planning meeting was to affirm the need to ensure clients experience Rhoades McKee in that same way.

“It really comes down to client-centered service. We realized we need to deconstruct our client relationships and look at every piece of client service from beginning to end,” Smith said.

“It’s not like what we have is broken,” he added. “But to exceed expectations we need to look at the whole relationship: who do clients encounter when they come in, do they meet the legal assistant, how can we make giving information to the firm easier.”

And Cross added, “We have savvy business clients, and we have people who have never been to a lawyer before. So it’s really important to figure out how to serve a wide range of clients.”

Smith added that people from different cultures may have very divergent expectations as well, and law firms must accommodate that if they expect to thrive in a changing future.

An important part of Rhoades McKee’s approach will be to solicit clients’ feedback all along their engagement with the firm.

“We want feedback from all of our clients, and we’re willing to modify our actions in response to that. They’re the ones who are going to tell us what we need to do,” said Cross.

Another key area for improvement is in keeping legal assistants and others in the communications loop so that they can be effective members of the client service team.

Constant use of technology, while helping greatly with efficiency and quick response time, has inadvertently left legal assistants with insufficient information to help clients. Emails or even voicemail are often received by the lawyer individually, and it is all too easy for him or her to reply without including the legal assistant. Mechanisms will be set in place to prevent that happening.

“Our legal assistants take absolute pride in what happens and they can be our very best ambassadors,” Smith said.

There are also plans for a full-staff retreat where legal assistants and other personnel will comment on the plan. (Management-level staff attended the Chicago meeting.)

“It will cover the same topics as the annual meeting. Mark and Paul and I will be in attendance part of the time, but we want them to have an opportunity to give feedback without any concerns, so we won’t be at the entire thing,” Cross explained.

“If they come up with great ideas, we’re certainly amenable to changing direction.”

The committee working on the client experience intends to come up with a list of best practices derived at least in part from what Rhoades McKee attorneys are already doing.

Smith noted that something of the same person-centered approach is needed in terms of lateral hires.

“We’re continuing to grow and expand and we think one of the best ways is to hire pre-trained qualified lawyers looking for a different work relationship,” said Smith. “We want to make sure that that experience also goes well.”

He himself was a lateral hire. Smith, whose practice is in construction law, human resources and employment, and dispute resolution and litigation moved to Rhoades McKee along with several of his partners when their firm decided to fold five years ago. At the time, he was President of the Grand?Rapids Bar Association, and shared his story widely in an attempt to help others; he continues to be involved with the GRBA, having spearheaded the bar’s 3Rs civic education program.

“Do we just show new hires to an office and hand them a Dictaphone?” Smith asked. “Or do we take them out to lunch and teach them about the firm’s culture?”

At each monthly shareholders’  meeting, committee leaders, including former State Bar President Bruce Courtade, will present on the progress made, which will be tracked on what Smith calls “a reporting matrix.”

By setting narrow goals, the organizers hoped to facilitate both responsiveness and accountability, so that each action item will be either achieved or re-evaluated.

“Everyone at the firm can really make a massive difference in the level of client satisfaction,” said Cross. “So we have to make sure they’re all part of the process.”

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