Monday, July 2, 2012

The Client-Focused Lawyer

[by Bill Henderson, originally published in The National Jurist, January 2011 (PDF)]

Over the last three years, the majority of my research has focused on lawyer competencies, or what I prefer to call lawyer success factors.  This research has fundamentally changed my perceptions of legal education, primarily because the majority of success factors are not taught, assessed, or measured during law school.  It is not that we law professors are deliberating ignoring something important.  Rather, we are not even aware that something beyond legal knowledge and technical skills are necessary for success.  

Based upon my own observation, and a fair amount of time sifting through data, I think the single best predictor of both success and satisfaction as a lawyer is the ability to become truly client focused.   Unfortunately, this client-focused mindset is completely absence in the large law school classes that are the core of the law school curriculum.

Everyone has heard the old saw that law school teaches students how to think like a lawyer.  For over a century, this has been accomplished by guiding students through a series of edited appellate opinions.  Drawing upon precedents, students begin to undertake how a particular “black letter” rule produces different legal outcomes depending upon the facts—hence the endless stream of law professor hypotheticals.  

The law, however, can sometimes be indeterminate.   Law professors like to focus on the indeterminacy because it makes for great exam questions (and law review articles).   Students who deftly handle the gray area tend to get the highest grades.  It is also how the law professoriate replicates itself.

Once in the world of practice, however, clients hire lawyers to solve problems, not manufacture ambiguity.   Before giving any advice, or taking any action, we need to understand the true nature of the problem.  This requires us to ask open-ended questions.  To listen.  To gather missing facts.  To put ourselves in the client’s shoes.  To find an appropriate and effective way to convey to the client that we understand the problem.   To listen some more.  And then to prescribe a course of action, or, alternatively, to candidly admit that we cannot provide a cost-effective solution. 

In my hundreds of conversations with lawyers over the years, the one common factor I have noticed with happy (and typically financially successful) lawyers is their ability to connect with clients by earning their trust.   Why, then, is this skill set missing from the law school curriculum? 

I think the answer is two-fold.  First, legal knowledge and technical skills are often critical to solving our clients’ problem.  Second, focusing on the needs of the client requires us to become conscious of own on limitations as counselors and strategists.  Because many of us want to feel expert and important—that is why we went to law school after all—we falsely conclude that technical mastery is all that is needed to serve clients well.   Law professors in particular tend to overswing the technical hammer because our security and livelihood does not depend upon our ability to solve the problems of actual clients.

In his book, The Trusted Advisor, the professional services guru David Maister describes the difficulties of becoming client focused.  As the client relates his or her problem, our minds race to formulate words that will make us sound expert—not unlike the anxiety of the entire first year of law school.  “If we are honest and strip down all of these distractions to the core,” write Maister, “we likely to find some form of fear at the root.  It may be fear of embarrassment, or failure, of appearing ignorant or incompetent, or fear of loss of reputation or security.”

Maister notes that the professions like law attract a disproportion number of people who are prone to fears.  We compensate by overachieving.  Indeed, many of us worked for years to win an academic marathon that continues throughout law school.  Ironically, it is the very success at technical excellence that makes it more difficult for us to connect with clients and develop a client following. 

This pattern shows up again and again in my work with law firms.   For example, entry level layer typically spike on a measures such as “quality focus” and “analytical reasoning”.  Highly successful partners share these attributes.  But they also spike on measure like “customer focus”, “innovation”, “problem solving” and “fearlessness.”

Clients are not the best judges of our technical abilities.  But they are capable of sizing up our motives.  When we step out of our comfort zone to truly listen to clients’ problems, and to ask questions that reveal our own lack of understanding but also our sincere desire to help, we have the potential to connect with our clients and earn their trust.   Lots of lawyers are willing to sell them legal advice.  But you are interested in solving their problem. 

For readers interested in learning more on how to connect with clients—and peers and colleagues throughout the legal profession—I would recommend reading Maister’s The Trusted Advisor.  Another worthwhile book on the topic is Patrick Lencioni’s Getting Naked: Overcoming the Three Fears that Sabotage Client Loyalty.  I am happy to say that both of these authors are influencing the curriculum of the 1L Legal Professions course at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law.  My colleagues are working hard to be client-centered law professors.

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