Today I want to discuss what, I imagine, many readers will thing is a hare-brained idea; and then I want to explain why, if you adopted this idea, your own behavior would change such that it might not end up being hare-brained in the least. Both dimensions of this discussion, I believe, have value, although the second can of course be transposed to an almost infinite variety of contexts. So if the first part (the proposal itself) leaves you cold, focus on the second.

First: The Proposal

The idea is a “Client Value Guarantee,” meaning simply that you would offer some clients a guarantee from your firm that if they feel they haven’t received value from you over the course of a representation, they don’t need to pay your bill as submitted.

Take a breath while I unpack this a bit.

  • “Some clients:” Yes, close readers will have detected a bit of calculated fuzziness in this formulation. Not, by any means, all clients. Not, probably and for example, new clients or episodic clients or clients who have otherwise demonstrated a tangential familiarity with scrupulously fair business practices.Which clients, then? Pretty simply, the opposite of those above: Steady clients of long standing, who have shown appreciation, above and beyond, for what your firm does for them. Clients in your firm’s inner circle, as it were. You know who they are, and who they aren’t.And for extra credit, you could further distill the opportunity set into those clients you plausibly believe might give your firm more work.
  • “A guarantee:” This means one thing but does not mean another thing. It does mean that the judgment whether “value” was received is the client’s and the client’s alone. Don’t argue. (This is an opportunity to invoke the timeless wisdom of Henry Ford 2d, who when arrested for drunk driving, said, “Never complain, never explain;” this even made his NY Times obit.) “Value” is solely in the eyes of the client because that’s what a guarantee means.What the guarantee does not mean is that the client gets their money back in full; here’s your opportunity to have a candid conversation
    with the client about what “value” would have been, why they were disappointed, what you could have done differently: And your opportunity, critically, to ask them how much they are willing to pay given the actual work performed.In other words: If your bill over-stated the “value” of the work in the client’s eyes, what would have been a reasonable and fair bill. $0.00 cannot be the answer (or you know what to do with that client; see bullet #1 above.)

The Chicago firm of Ungaretti & Harris (merged earlier this year into Nixon Peabody) actually offered just such a thing. Here’s how their guarantee read, in haec verba:

We guarantee that as a client of Ungaretti & Harris you will receive cost-effective legal services delivered in a timely manner. We promise to involve you and communicate with you regularly. We cannot guarantee outcomes, but we do guarantee your satisfaction with our service. If Ungaretti & Harris does not perform to your satisfaction, inform us promptly. We will resolve the issue to your satisfaction, even if it means reducing your legal fees.

This has a lot going for it: Plain-spoken, direct, the opposite of legalistic. And also realistic (“we cannot guarantee outcomes”).

Let’s pause at this point, before we proceed to the dynamic implications this has, to consider the bidding among proponents and detractors.

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