By Vivek Jayaram
Most of our clients are pretty smart and savvy. And even though some are cost-conscious, all of them are most interested in getting competent, focused legal advice. But I am not going to fool myself (or anyone else) into thinking that a client selects a law firm based upon the legal strategy they will ultimately implement to solve their problem. Sure, some firms have a reputation of being more aggressive, others more conservative, but by and large sophisticated clients are going to find lawyers who will ultimately deliver to them a workable legal strategy. Bear in mind most problems have more than one solution. All the more reason why one sound strategy is not necessarily the only good approach that exists.
So all of this begs the question: what differentiates us? It’s really the service that is provided during the process of solving the legal problem. I had a client recently tell me (about her experience with her prior counsel), “we closed the round of financing, the documents are all in place, but it was a really unpleasant experience.” I thought about that for a minute. As lawyers, we are expected to comprehensively research legal issues, apply that research to often times nuanced and complex business problems, and now you’re also telling me that we have to make the experience pleasurable for the client in some way? Absolutely.
Members of any service industry need to work on differentiating themselves through the actual service they provide during the problem solving process. A car buyer might get insurance coverage at a reasonable rate using Company A and Company B, but the reason that buyer selects Company A every time is because the experience is tolerable, and probably better than expected.
What does that mean for our clients? I think 3 things: (1) communication; (2) focus; and (3) cost.
Communication is probably the most important piece of any extraordinary service provider, attorneys included. It means a lot of different things. For starters, service providers need to communicate properly to set expectations about how they are going to solve the problem that the client presents to them. Then we need to make sure that we are responsive. I cannot tell you how many times that I have experienced (both as a client and a lawyer) a positive outcome in a service context primarily because the provider was responsive. Never make the client follow up with you. Be out in front of the next communication. And always make sure you end your communication with an expectation of when the client can hear from you again, and for what purpose.
The flipside is also true: I’ve seen relationships break down where the service provider did a fine job, but was simply not responsive to the client’s questions or concerns along the way (even if those concerns were addressed in the final work product).
As lawyers, our clients come to us often times during crisis, or at least during an inflection point where conflict is possible. Part of our job is to consistently communicate so that nothing unexpected happens. The unexpected is what causes unusual amounts of stress.
Stay on top of things, and overcommunicate with your clients.
Whether closing a round of venture financing or litigating a trademark case, we have sizable projects on our hands every day. There is a point A and point B, but the best lawyers learn to always stay as close to the straight line between the two throughout their representation. That’s a lot easier said then done. There are opposing counsel who are trying to get you as far away from point B as humanely possible. There are multiple people within your client’s organization who have strong opinions about strategy. And there’s many times a Judge or a Bank or some other third party that also has an influence on your ability to get to point B from point A in an efficient manner.
Don’t give up on your goals. Clients get frustrated when we start doing things that seem to get away from reaching the goals that we discussed at the beginning of the relationship. Maybe those goals have changed. If so, see point 1 above and reset expectations. If not, then you’re losing focus, which means you’re losing the confidence of your client.
Time means everything in today’s venture driven ecosystem. Our clients expect us to move with purpose from A to B as quickly and intentionally as possible. Losing focus at any point along the way could cause a break in the relationship. By constantly ensuring that each call to action furthers your journey to Point B, you will win clients for life.
Cost is always a factor. For everyone. And it’s closely related to 1 and 2 above. If you don’t communicate the expectation of cost up front, your clients will be in for an unwelcome surprise. If you unravel and become unfocused, costs will increase and you will have unhappy clients. But most importantly, cost is a major factor in whether your client believes that you added value to her business by solving a problem in an economical way.
The classic example I recall is when a client told me that they’re looking for a new lawyer because the last one spent $300,000 to fix a $500,000 problem. They might have communicated well (and probably a lot, to rack up that bill) and maybe even stayed on task (the client said the problem was resolved adequately), but at what cost?
Lawyers cannot charge each client and each problem the same way. That makes no sense. A $10,000,000 problem is handled (and priced) differently than a $100,000 problem.
Don’t believe me? Ask any of your clients whether they treat their customer issues differently depending on the amount of money that’s involved. I bet they do. That doesn’t mean you do bad work by taking shortcuts. It means you spend a good deal of time on point 1, communicating and discussing an efficient plan with your client that clearly articulates expectations and value.
At the end of the day, I am pretty sure that the solutions I find for my clients are not completely novel in every respect. In most cases, we are trying to solve a problem by using best practices and laws that are in place. For me, the right legal advice is a given – we’ve got to provide that. But what makes us different is the same thing that makes every good service provider stand out – the commitment to providing an open, focused, and efficient strategy to solving client issues.