What makes a client your client?
January 13, 2016
A few months ago, a senior executive at a client company told me the substantial business sent to my firm in recent years was rooted in his relationship with me as a trusted adviser. So far, so good. He then said, to my surprise, that he valued the overall relationship more than a perfect job. Of course I don’t believe there is any excuse for falling short of the highest professional standards (and told him this), but our conversation provided an interesting insight into a client’s perspective.
In a competitive and commoditised marketplace where clients have become increasingly sophisticated buyers of legal services, what is the secret formula that distinguishes one highly qualified lawyer from another? Why does a client select you to represent their interests instead of another lawyer and what makes that same client stay with you? I cannot profess to have stumbled on the formula, if one even exists, but I have learned a few lessons over the years – sometimes the hard way.
If you will forgive another infernal acronym, I call my personal client toolkit G.R.A.C.E. and this is how it is comprised:
There is little worse than a lawyer who explains the law, identifies the risks and sets out the available options but does not ultimately present a solution. Your client expects you to understand their situation and objectives and it is then your role to take a firm grip, devise a strategy and guide the way forward.
Always remember that your client has other priorities and demands on their time too. So delivering on your promises and valuing your client’s time is key. If things cannot be achieved due to unforeseen developments then you should be proactive in managing your client’s expectations whilst bearing in mind a client never wants to hear that another matter is more urgent or pressing than their own.
Your client expects you to be on side and to represent their interests. But this does not mean your client expects you to tell them what they want to hear. On the contrary, if you are able to convince the client that you are acting in their best interests and can demonstrate your authority on the subject, they will not only respect your independent view but will usually prefer your counsel to their own.
As the famed Roman lawyer and statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero, once wrote “advice is judged by results, not by intentions”. There is no purpose and there are no accolades to be won by recommending grand (and usually costly) courses of action which are not proportionate to the problem at hand. It is better to advise according to practical objectives which are tailored to the client’s requirements and, by doing so, you are more likely to deliver the desired results.
Your client expects you to live and breathe their problem until a solution is secured. So it is important to immerse yourself in the context and to advise according to your client’s specific circumstances. You should not hesitate to show your personality when advising a client. If they wanted assistance from an automaton, they would not have asked you to act for them.
You may wonder, with good reason, why legal expertise is not in my list and the answer is a simple one. In my experience, prospective clients come to us with the assumption and an expectation that we are competent lawyers with a depth of knowledge in our respective specialist areas. So this is a given and a fundamental part of the solicitor-client relationship.
Similarly, why is cost not included in my list? This is because I have found a client does not choose their advisor according to fees. A client will make their decision based on who they believe can complete the task at hand, provide a practical solution to a problem and represent their interests effectively – at which stage the client already knows they want to work with you. If you can then add to this by demonstrating a competitive edge to your fees you will probably be the lawyer that wins, and keeps, the client!