The following column is by Janet Stanton, Partner, Adam Smith, Esq.

This may come as news, and, perhaps unwelcome news, at that, to many lawyers.  That said, again and again and in study after study clients express their strong preference for lawyers and firms that provide targeted, client-centric service.  In our first piece on strategic client management, here, a service orientation consistently trounces legal expertise as what clients value most.

Another study unpacks this a bit more.  This from Randall Kiser in his American Law Firms in Transition prioritizes what clients and lawyers view as the key competencies for outside counsel.

Lawyers’ vs. Clients’ Top 10 Competency Rankings


Lawyers’ Ranking Clients’ Ranking
Legal expertise Ongoing communication; keeping clients informed/updated, responding promptly, asking questions and seeking information
Honoring client confidentiality Listening attentively
Punctuality Responsiveness to and anticipation of client needs
Determining risk mitigation strategies Explaining fee arrangements, providing accurate cost estimates and a clear rationale for any variance
Honoring commitments Strategic problem solving and strong case/project management
Managing support staff Understanding client priorities, expectations, and need for closure
Integrity and trustworthiness Empathy and compassion
Ability to provide a disinterested assessment of a proposed deal in risk/reward terms Respectfulness
Treating others with courtesy Legal expertise
Ability to prepare a case for trial Trust

This deserves a bit of study:

  • First and foremost, the top six characteristics clients are seeking are all relationship or service oriented. The topmost desired characteristic is “ongoing communications.” “Listening” and “responsiveness” are the next two.   As we’ve seen in other studies, “strategic problem solving,” or a solutions-orientation is highly valued by clients.  These are all elements of a relationship in service to client needs.

This study also throws into sharp relief the yawning disconnect between lawyers and their clients with very little overlap between the two lists:

  • As my esteemed colleague, Bruce MacEwen pointed out, the far majority of desired characteristics expressed by lawyers in this study have nothing to do with relationship; these are all things lawyers can do on their own – with no need to collaborate with any one; internally or externally. Frankly, these strike me as pretty much small-beer; “honoring commitments” may earn you, at best, a slow clap.
  • Yet again, lawyers overestimate “legal expertise,” categorizing it as the top competency desired by clients. Consistent with other research, clients in this study rank “legal expertise” as second-to-last in importance.  Let me be clear, of course legal expertise is necessary; that said, it is table stakes – expected to be there.  Excellent legal expertise is in no way a differentiator since it is so widely available.[1]

And, I could not leave uncommented-upon:

  • “Punctuality” – srsly? – at #3 on the lawyers’ list? I expect punctuality and “treating others with courtesy” (#9) from a well-behaved first grader; hardly the apotheoses of professional excellence.

So, what are some of the implications?

If it’s not already obvious – what your client thinks and wants is a whole lot more important than what you think they need or want.  Moreover, many clients, certainly on the business side, have little ability to judge legal expertise.  There is an analogy to this with the medical profession where it’s also difficult to judge a practitioner’s qualifications.  And, what do we then fall back on?  It is whether or not the doctor has “a good bedside manner.”  We all know what the means; someone who listens to your concerns and is responsive to them with an empathetic demeanor.  Lawyers should strongly consider more of that.

More specifically, this has implications for how lawyers and firms present themselves to the market – i.e., clients and potential clients.  Bios, for example, could focus on how lawyers solved their clients’ problems. Pitch teams could study a prospect’s business issues and make the pitch meeting a discussion about how they would approach those issues.  Leave the credentials listing your fancy law schools and prestigious awards for the leave-behind.

Either could include germane case studies – much more engaging and relevant than whether you earned the Order of the Coif at long-ago law school.

This also underscores the importance of robust client feedback. At the most basic level, you can’t know whether you’re meeting their needs if you don’t know what they are.  Beyond that, how do they like to communicate?  Frequency?  On what kind of issues?  Assuming that you know – or that your way is right is both arrogant and highly annoying.

As mentioned in other pieces (but bears repeating), a recent Acritas study reported that a mere 16% of legal buyers responded that they were approached to provide their feedback.  Not only will you find out what your clients are thinking, this will distinguish you from your competitors.  Plus, it will demonstrate your interest in them and their issues; strong ways to build a more solid relationship.

My last point; none of this is really hard.  The practice of law can be hard, presumably being more empathetic and responsive should be a lot less so.

[1] There are examples where exceptional expertise is truly required; these are rare and far from the norm.

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