Posted by: johnocunningham | July 23, 2015

Best Business Building Tool? Clients Say “Listening”

I have done a number of General Counsel surveys over the years, asking chief legal officers what they think the best tool is for building client relationships.

The most common and frequent answer I get boils down to: “Listening.”

Those who have not practiced in-house may not understand that in-house counsel has to build trust with internal constituents and has to persuade them to entrust matters to the legal department, not unlike the way in which outside counsel must build trust with prospective clients. Trust is not awarded based on someone’s title or credentials, but based on demonstrations of personal care, commitment and mutual trust. In-house providers work especially hard at building trust with their legal clients in other departments (operations, marketing, finance, real estate, etc.) to be invited into their world and see what is really going on there.

Far and away the most common way that General Counsel build trust is by listening to their in-house business peers. GCs similarly recommend that outside counsel “just listen” sometimes without a meter running if they want to get more business.

GCs have provided to me examples of how this works in practice.

In-house lawyers say they often go into a meeting not with pre-conceived recommendations, but open ears. They don’t try to spot issues right away and offer solutions (though they must be prepared to do that). Instead, they generally make sure that the client has had a chance to express everything on their mind before jumping into action. That draws the client out, and often results in them talking about much more than was on the original agenda.

Often, say GCs, a client wants to vent, they want someone to recognize their frustrations, and they want to know that the legal professional is listening empathetically and asking follow-up questions that draw out everything the client wants to express (which may or may not be related to a legal problem and solution). Very often it is only after this has been accomplished that a client is ready to listen to what the lawyer has to say.

One parallel that some have offered is that of a doctor. When you go to see your doctor, you want them to listen to all of your symptoms and concerns, whether or not all of them are related or are relevant to a diagnosis. A doctor who listens at length before making a diagnosis and prescription is always preferred over one who jumps right in and says “you need to do XYZ” before listening to everything the patient says. Even if the quick-tongued doctor is right, he or she will lose points with the patient, who wonders whether the doctor really cares or really came up with the right prescription (leading the patient possibly to ignore the doctor’s advice).

In my own experience as a GC, I also found that just sitting down with clients over lunch and coffee with no real agenda at all was the best way to build trust and ultimately get more business. The more time I spent with someone, the more matters they called me about and the more chances they gave me to proactively counsel them instead of fixing a bag of problems they brought to me only after they could not be swept under a rug.

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