On What Lawyers Really Do

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Category: Legal Ethics, Legal Practice
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customer-service2Client service is not a class taught in law schools, but don’t forget that client service is at the heart of what we do as lawyers. Our mandate as attorneys is to zealously (and ethically, of course) represent our clients. So whatever area of the law you are in or going into, don’t forget that you are less a litigator, for example, than a service provider. After all, no client, no case to litigate, or will to draft, or deal to do.

Truth be told, it’s not easy to keep client service in mind.  We think of ourselves as practitioners of the law–and we are–and we often want to do things in the way we see as “right” or interesting or novel. When I say “right” I’m talking about your professional opinion about the way things ought to be done, not an ethical or moral rectitude. But sometimes our clients don’t want or need things done the way you or I think they ought to be done. Sometimes clients want interesting or novel thinking, and sometimes they don’t. That’s when it can be difficult to remember that your job is to serve your client and not simply to practice law by your own lights.

Consider a poignant example. I recently sat in a room with one of my company’s outside counsel who is handling a large litigation for us.  She enjoyed telling me the story about defending one of her first big cases in which damages to her client could have been in the range of several tens of millions of dollars. The case settled for closer to ten million, and her client celebrated the result. She thought the client had gone insane: who celebrates losing ten million dollars, and not clearing their good name in court to boot?  But her feelings demonstrate the disconnect between a then-less-seasoned attorney and her client. She wanted to try the case and score a “win”; the client wanted to minimize risk and expense, and believed that settling the case for a fraction of the potential damages was the way to achieve that goal.  She did not have a good understanding of her client’s view of the world, nor of her client’s goals at the time.  If she had, she would have celebrated the “win” with the client rather than doubting the client’s sanity. 

Talk to your clients. Understand their goals. Discuss various ways to achieve those goals. Realize that your client may desire a result or a way of getting to that result that is not what you would have chosen. Then go out and deliver what your client asked for. You’ll find this to be a successful  business model (gasp!).  Lawyers are notoriously bad business persons, but at a minimum we should be good listeners. And if listening leads to action and good communication between you and your client, you’ll find that your legal practice is ultimately more successful and more fulfilling. If you don’t listen to your clients, you may find that you don’t have much law to practice.

This is not to suggest that you should avoid communicating frankly with your clients when their expectations are out of whack. Quite the opposite. You are the professional, and the subject matter expert. But sometimes clients tell us their goals and we go right to the list of reasons why those goals can’t be achieved. Before you do that, take a moment to think outside of the box. Can you do something differently, or approach the problem in a different way, in order to deliver results for your client?  Talk it over; think it over; be creative and thoughtful. And once you’ve looked at the problem from all sides, communicate with your client about realistic expectations.

One final thought on client service: win the easy ones (as a certain Marquette University Law School Dean likes to say). If your client has a deadline, meet it. If your client wants the work product to be in a certain form, make it so. If your client wants to be updated on a specific schedule, then update them accordingly. You’d be surprised–or perhaps you wouldn’t–how many lawyers fail miserably at these very simple tasks. When you can’t deliver on these basic requests, when clearly communicated to you by your client, why should anyone think that you can deliver good work on more complicated tasks?  Win the easy ones and you’re 90% of the way towards making your clients happy.  Remember, lawyers provide service, we don’t just practice law. Act accordingly.

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One Response to “On What Lawyers Really Do”

  1. Tim,

    In our mediation clinic, we do teach law students how to deeply listen to people, understand both their true interests in a conflict and the role emotions play in that conflict. The student mediators also promote the creation of a variety of options for the parties. When the students shed the thought they know what a good outcome might be and in fact have the parties create a meaningful resolution, they learn that the role of a lawyer (or mediator) is to help people achieve that which they truly desire. I often tell the students that the skills they are learning are critical to their ability to become an effective “counselor at law” and advocate for their clients.


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