Solo & Small Firm

What Can McDonald’s Employees Teach Us About Serving Legal Clients?

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By Dolan Williams, Esq.*

One of my favorite places to shop is Sprouts. For those who do not know, Sprouts is a chain grocery store that is set up much like a farmer’s market. Brands like Nabisco are a no-no as the store prides itself on selling wholesome, quality, and nutritious food. I love shopping there because their apples are the sweetest fruit I have ever tasted, and my new favorite are these milk chocolate-flavored banana chips. Lines are not usually very long at Sprouts because the food can be a little pricey so only people serious about their food tend to go. I love Sprouts, but with four kids, it is a far cry my kids’ real favorite place to eat: McDonald’s.

How many McDonald’s are within five miles of my home compared to Sprouts? 5 to 1.

Also, my first job as a teenager? McDonald’s.

McDonald’s is so ubiquitous that one is likely being built right in my front yard right now.

There is a reason for this kind of ubiquity: people know what to expect at McDonald’s. Having worked there eons ago, I learned so many reasons why McDonald’s has managed to outwit and outlast virtually every other kind of restaurant and I still find myself there more often than I shall ever care to admit. Even today, I apply the principles of customer service that I learned in my days in a Glendale, Arizona drive-through, and believe in the importance of sharing those things with fellow lawyers to help in their practice.

“Evolving Consistency”: When I was 16 and began working at McDonald’s, they had a promotion where you could get 29-cent hamburgers. This deal was so popular, one guy phoned ahead and asked if he could order fifty (5-0) hamburgers. For himself. I remember bagging up the orders and he just explained that he has loved their burgers as long as he could remember so he could not resist. There were probably also ten other promotions going on at the same time, none of which I remember. Why? Because McDonald’s constantly tests out new products and promotions in its stores, but they ditch what does not work. People come for the consistency, but McDonald’s knows it can never keep customers without trying new things on top of its classics.

What matters in your legal practice is continuing to push your boundaries, but always remember what got you that corner office or how you won the business of certain clients. Your strengths could be your research skills, your ability to persuade a jury, or just listening to people. Continue to promote your skills like McDonald’s pushes its burgers but getting complacent and not stepping outside of your comfort zone will get you left behind.

Service with a Smile: Practicing law can be tough. Whether you are in-house counsel for a business, you draft contracts for a government entity, or you are in high-stakes litigation, this profession can try your patience, steer you toward burnout, and, in some cases, lead some of our members of the bar toward alcohol and drugs. This is such a problem for lawyers that the State Bar of California has its own Lawyer Assistance Program to give us a chance at saving ourselves from ourselves. The stress of the job can boil over and it may cause us to be curt, short-tempered, or outright rude to clients, partners, staff, or opposing counsel.

When I started working at McDonald’s, I was so excited to make my own money I always had a smile on my face. Customers were not only surprised, but they loved that it seemed like I liked  my job. What was weird was that I did not love every part, but the parts I did love kept me coming back. I have found that when dealing with even the most frustrating people, service with a smile helps people feel welcome, and for those who practice in areas where smiles are hard to come by (family law, for example), remembering this simple trick can do wonders.

Boundaries: Despite a stereotype of California’s obsession with health food, the line at the local McDonald’s drive-through in the morning is only rivaled by my local Starbucks. When I worked at McDonald’s, I could remember that every day around 12:15 the local trade school would let its students out for lunch and the dining room would be filled. This continued for the next nine hours non-stop. Then the store closed. The bathrooms were cleaned, the cash drawers counted, tables wiped down, doors were locked, and everyone just went home.

For many of us, setting boundaries can be extremely difficult. Lawyers who run their own practice, are new associates, or are hunting a promotion constantly feel they must squeeze more into twenty-four hours. McDonald’s has lasted generations in part because they send their people home at the end of the day. As lawyers, we must make consistent efforts to just send ourselves home at the end of the day unless it is necessary. One lesson I learned from McDonald’s is that my health, my sleep, and my time with my family are things I cannot get back if I lose them.

Communication: Where I grew up, we had a sizeable Sudanese and Mexican immigrant population and at least half of the staff at the store I worked at hailed from one of those two countries. Their English was okay, but my zero years of speaking any of the Sudanese languages and zero years of Spanish classes left me struggling how to communicate special orders of customers. McDonald’s helps solve this problem by creating a workflow that is easy for virtually anyone to understand. Because of their “evolving consistency,” McDonald’s tries earnestly to limit mistakes, increase efficiency, and speed communication by making their processes so easily understood, people from different countries can work entire shifts with no problem. In our practice, we must craft contracts, draft emails, or consider arguments unique to each scenario, but having a framework of how to approach a situation can help. This can include drafting templates that anyone could use and investing in software to help with practice management so we can limit mistakes like not getting clients their money from their trust account, or just paying the bills.

Thus, the next time you are driving past a McDonald’s, stop a moment to consider that while we toil away in our offices and try to solve problems, we can always learn something from others, even those we tend to overlook.

*Dolan Williams is a solo attorney practicing in San Diego, California. Dolan focuses his efforts on helping small businesses with their varied needs including landlord-tenant disputes, intellectual property, and employment law. Dolan has been a member of the State Bar of California since 2016 and is a proud graduate of Concord Law School at Purdue Global University.

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