It's the Client, Stupid! 9 Ways to Improve Attorney-Client Relationships

By District of Columbia Bar

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D.C. Bar President Timothy K. Webster recently moderated a panel of in-house counsel at a legal marketing event that turned into a lively discussion about outside counsel.

“A lot of lawyers claim to have entered the profession to help people (i.e., clients). Yet as we strive to become better lawyers, we focus principally on enhancing our legal knowledge and acumen. We read the trade press and case digests to keep up with recent developments. We attend conferences to hear in depth from leading practitioners and scholars. We work off any rust by taking on projects that require use of our rusty skills. But we often ignore the enrichment of our client relations,” Webster said in his President’s Message published in this month’s Washington Lawyer.

Here are nine points from that panel discussion (summarized by Webster):

Know my business. Providing top-notch representation, not to mention developing a successful long-term attorney–client relationship, requires learning the client’s business (including nonprofits and government agencies). Clients appreciate it but do not want to pay for it. If you want to be the best lawyer you can be for your client, invest some of your own time—gratis—by learning what the organization does, how it does it, and its plans for the future.

Help me do my job. Clients judge their counsel based on a variety of factors such as quality of work product, cost of service, responsiveness, and ultimate success, to name a few. But your client representatives are judged, too, by their organizations. Be sensitive to the fact that you impact your client representatives. Do your job well, but also help them do their jobs well.

I just want the answer. Smart, diligent lawyers provide detailed, often verbose, and usually expensive legal analysis to clients, yet those clients frequently just want answers in digestible bites that can be used to brief their organization’s management. This is a tricky area for lawyers, who can’t afford to be curt or flippant with their advice. My panelists understood that hard work needs to be done to get to the right answer, but they also need and greatly appreciate help digesting the advice and presenting it in a way that is most helpful within their organization.

I hire lawyers, not firms. Most clients look foremost at hiring quality individual lawyers—not law firms—who are or can become trusted advisors and partners (although one panelist brought us down to earth by adding “but when we fire, we fire firms”). The onus is on that trusted advisor to maintain the relationship. My panelists detested the “bait and switch” by firms that present certain lawyers during a pitch, but put others on the project once hired.

You don’t need to be “all that.” Arrogance can backfire quickly for outside counsel. Perhaps some clients are impressed by it, but my panelists were rubbed the wrong way by lawyers who considered themselves to be the smartest person in the room. Nor were they impressed by legal rankings, and they professed not to rely on them.

We are not friends. Lawyers need to tend to their relationships with their client representatives but should not mistake those relationships for friendship in most cases. This is another tricky area for lawyers. No rule bars attorneys from being friends with clients, but the core duties of a lawyer run to the client entity, not the representative. Taking the relationship too far can become awkward, if not problematic. Be collegial, but don’t suggest vacationing together.

Respect my time. Don’t oversell and over-schmooze your clients. My panelists said they are happy to go to lunch or dinner occasionally, but coffee is fine, too. Also, they don’t really read the burgeoning wealth of marketing materials (e.g., client alerts and newsletters) that firms send them, but they do appreciate concise, targeted, and insightful material that is directly relevant to their organizations.

Adapt and innovate. Clients, especially businesses, are always innovating and expect their vendors to do the same. For lawyers, that innovation means not only keeping up with technology, but also rethinking fee structures. Show your clients that you are responsive to their needs by discussing creative fee approaches and the use of technology.

Ask me for feedback. Clients appreciate being asked how their counsel is doing, occasionally. The conversation may be more blunt—and useful—if the lawyer or firm uses a third party to conduct the interview.

Go here to read the entire Washington Lawyer Magazine online.