Case Manager Starts January 2nd
Getting Clients To Rethink Their Views On Lawyers

Lawyers And Clients Shouldn't Be Like Kids And Parents

Patrick Lamb over at In Search of Perfect Client Service has an interesting series of posts worth reading. In one post, he talks about the "under promise and over deliver" concept. He notes that it is not simply falling over the goal line, it is blowing through the back of the end zone. Of particular note is his question as to whether or not the concept can ever apply to lawyers, becuase clients expectations of their lawyers are so low. Here is my money quote:

            As I understand Dan's argument, the philosophy doesn't apply to lawyers because client expectations are so low that "over delivering" does not really accomplish much. Sort or like being the tallest midget.

I agree one hundred percent with Patrick's conclusion that in order for lawyers to really distinguish themselves in the market, they need to change the market. I am always evangelizing the way I deliver services to clients, including my innovative billing approaches to other lawyers locally. They eventually ask why I am sharing this information with them, given that I have been so successful with my model. My answer is always the same. Until the market starts demanding for my brand of services, then my clients are simply finding me by dumb luck. Unless I can get other lawyers to start doing business the way that I do, clients will never seek out my brand of service. One of the things that I hope this blog accomplishes is to inspire other lawyers to start thinking out of the box when it comes to client service. Over the course of my career, I expect that there will be significant diversification in the legal services market. I also expect that blogs will be a large part of the motivation for change.

Patrick Lamb also has a great post about something Tom Kane has written about at his Legal Marketing Blog. Patrick notes that sometimes he feels like a big wallet to his kids. He asked the relevant question, "Do we treat our clients the same way that our kids sometimes treat us? Are our clients really just sources of money?". Tom Kane notes that Jerry Riskin over at Amazing Firms Amazing Practices has also weighed in on this important topic (here). All of these posts spring off of David Maister's post titled "Do You Really Want Relationships". Maister provides the following examples of a dysfunctional "client as enemy" approach by law firms:

  • Focus on rehearsing what you are going to say to the client in proposals and presentations rather than how you plan to get a true conversation going.
  • Avoiding conversations with clients because you want either to remain in control or avoid having to treat the client as a person.
  • Avoiding contact with clients unless there is something concrete to talk about.
  • Too obviously trying to sell more work to get what you want rather than serve the client.
  • Requiring that all agreements and decisions be documented and formally approved, rather than trusting each other’s word.

If you really take a hard look at the above list, you will realize that lawyers do all of the above things. It is part of the bread and butter of the practice of law as we know it today. Of course, all of these "client as enemy" indicia come from our feeding frenzy mentality when it comes to generating billable hours. Because our profession is so focused on creating and capturing billable time, there is very little attention given to creating relationships.

At my firm, we work hard to build relationships with our clients. Our clients are constantly evangelizing us to their friends and business associates. We are constantly discussing budgets, expectations, providing discounts on fees for no particular reason, meeting with our clients at their business location at no charge, having conversations with clients at no charge, and generally treating our clients as our friends, as opposed to as if they were giant talking wallets.

Comments

GAL

Moe: Good point. I probably overstated the proper approach to clients by suggesting that we should treat them like friends. We need to treat them like clients. But we would not screw our friends down the drain on the legal bill. And we wouldn't empty our friends wallet with hourly billing just because we can.

But I agree that we should not confuse business with friendship. While I am sure we all have literal friends as clients, we always need to distance ourselves from having a personal relationship in order to give objective rational advice.

The real point is that lawyers often have little regard for establishing long term client relationships. Since most people are stretched to afford legal services in the first instance, there is a an all too common approach to 'bleed them dry' and send them on. Without a comprehensive up front understanding of your client's goals and their legal budget, what possible hope could there be in providing value?

GAL

But Moe. Don't you see. You make profits by delivering value. You make profits by increasing market share, and increasing margins by controlling costs (leveraging technology and eliminating the endless pyramid of associate salaries). This occurs if you deliver more for less (just like Walmart, or Toyota or a thousand other businesses).

But I will agree that value is a nebulous term in the current legal vernacular, especially if you believe as you do that no lawyer should even try. We not only try. We get in bed with the client and provide incentives to accomplish goals within budgets. We define every legal project on the front end, identifying client goals and defining how those goals will be achieved. What other service profession gets away with signing up clients without creating a project document which identifies concrete deliverables and cost?

Lawyers don't have to do these things. But for those who do, profits and market share will likely follow. Why? Because in a market economy these things are valuable to clients. By the way, many fortune 100 companies are no longer paying hourly bills. They are demanding and obtaining alternatives similar to those being discussed here. I worked for one such firm in the early 1990s. That is 15 years ago. The firm actually proposed to the client (one of the largest corporations in the world) that they would do certain litigation for a flat fee, which would cover costs as well including airfare and expert fees. The firm took on the risk of the budget. It is one of the most well respected, successful and profitable firms in the country.

Insane you say? Non-Capitalistic you argue. I would argue the opposite. Such approaches are the very essence of capitalism. Firms who simply delude themselves that hourly billing / endlessly expanding pyramid is the correct business model to compete will be left behind, and unprofitable. The only real question is when. The winds of change are already blowing.

The comments to this entry are closed.