A recent blog post by estate planning and elder law expert, Harry Margolis, neatly summarizes “Five Things You Should Expect from Your Attorney,” and it is fairly consistent with the expectations that actual clients express when surveyed about their legal service concerns.
It is interesting to note that three of the five expectations relate to communications:
- Listening skills;
- Clarity of communications; and
Listening. Over the years, I have interviewed numerous in-house lawyers, general counsel and even CEOs who say that listening skills are a critical differentiator for them, and many study the behavior of outside counsel in pitch presentations and other interactions to see if they are top-flight listeners. Among CEOs it is not uncommon to hear a remark to this effect: “If someone has 10 minutes to visit with me, that is a lot, and they better spend at least five of those minutes listening to my concerns.”
Clarity. Another remark that I often hear in one form or another from clients is this: “I am not hiring a lawyer to tell me how complicated something is. I am hiring them to make the complicated simple.” These clients want a lawyer who can, as Denzell Washington said in the movie “Philadelphia,” just “explain something to me like I’m a six-year old child.” No client has ever told me they wanted to hear more statutory or regulatory citations in an explanation, and no client has ever told me they were disappointed in a research memo because it did not have enough weight. Many, many clients have told me that they were disappointed in lawyers whose explanations were “as clear as mud.” So take the time to distill something long into something short and simple before you meet with a client.
Responsiveness. Large corporate clients have become so insistent on responsiveness that the vast majority of their outside counsel have really “gotten it” in recent years. Law firm partners generally return calls, or have someone on staff return calls to clients the same day that they call, and some even set targets of just an hour or two for a response time. But lawyers who serve consumers and smaller clients often still struggle with developing processes and project management skills that facilitate rapid responsiveness. Thus, many smaller clients still don’t get how a profession survives with a “we’ll get to it when we can” approach, and many others are still filing grievances when the service gets really bad (one of the leading precipitants of grievances filed against lawyers is communications-based issues, mostly relating to responsiveness).
The good news for lawyers is that they can win over a lot of clients by just executing well on these basic expectations, which don’t require any complex training or advanced degrees !