Last week, Seth Godin's blog contained a short, but pointed post entitled what consumers want. He says that consumers say they want everything "perfect, now and cheap," but what he thinks they really want is "interaction, expectations exceeded and respect."
Whether we agree with Godin or not, it behooves us to realize that consumers, which includes consumers of legal services, often don't articulate what it is that they really want. Sometimes they don't know what they really want - at least initially. It takes a little digging, a little conversation, a little interaction with them to get to the heart of what they really do want. And sometimes it takes a little testing. Clients often act very differently than they think they will or say they will at the outset if some basics are not explored.
I had a very interesting conversation with an attorney last week after one of my presentations. We were discussing how he talks to clients about fees and expectations. Although clients often tell him that they only want him to do work on the file, when he probes a little deeper with them, he often finds that what they really want is for him to use his discretion to determine what would be best for the client, both economically and in handling the file. For example, when he points out to the client that they'll be paying his fee to appear for non-substantive conferences that require an appearance but have already been adjourned 'on consent' of the parties, the client agrees that perhaps he doesn't want the partner to do everything on the file, and that the partner should use his discretion to determine when to send an associate.
This lawyer is very smart. He's created a win-win situation. He wins and the client wins. The client is getting great representation in the most economical manner it can be delivered. The attorney is still accountable to the client, but he's leveraging properly so that he can focus on the tasks that need to be handled by a higher level attorney, while giving his younger associates experience and keeping the client happy. If done properly, not only does it keep the client's costs down, but ultimately, it maximizes the return for the firm as well. And his conversation with the client enhances the relationship of trust. The client knows that, rather than trying to 'milk' the client by getting his partner rate for everything from photocopying to filing papers and doing routine tasks on the file, the attorney is making informed, professional decisions about the appropriate staffing for the project.
It may sound simple, but there are lots of firms out there that wouldn't challenge the client when the client says they only want the partner handling the file; they'd just charge the client for everything at the partner's rate, thinking they're getting a windfall. But ultimately, that doesn't enhance the relationship with the client if that wasn't what the client really wanted - regardless of what the client said in the beginning. And it's poor use of the partner's time as well.
It's our responsibility as lawyers to educate clients about what they can and should expect from the process. If your clients are insisting on an immediate, 'perfect' result at very little cost, consider exploring whether that's what they really want, and whether that's a reasonable expectation. Others may disagree, but I think that it's the attorney's responsibility to turn away clients with whom he or she cannot agree on reasonable expectations. Allowing a client to proceed under false expectations spells disaster, usually for both the attorney and the client.
Taking the time to talk to clients about realistic expectations and interacting with them, addressing their real concerns, digging deeper to determine what result they really want and what you can realistically provide is critical to establishing the trust and confidence that are essential to a good attorney-client connection. This probing and process of education creates value and shows the client that you respect them, your work, and the others that work with you.