It is a common lament: “My clients say they only want me. How do I introduce colleagues or juniors in a way that creates trust?”
And like so many business obstacles lawyers struggle to overcome, it’s one they create themselves. Which means it’s one that can easily be eliminated.
Why do clients insist on you, and only you, doing their work? The answer is simple and obvious. “You” is what you sold them. Your expertise. Your experience. You, you, you. Why would you expect them to accept anyone else?
Be Careful What You Wish For
We’ve all heard variations on this expression, attributed to Aesop among others, about the unintended consequences of our wishes being granted. The good news is the client was sufficiently impressed with your credentials that she hired you. The unfortunate consequence is that in her mind she hired you, specifically. When you persuade a prospect to hire you, you’ll absolutely get that. They’ll hire you. Not your colleagues. Not junior people. At least not without some understandable pushback.
Shifting the Sales Conversation to the Team
Lawyers and other professionals hold to the egocentric belief that it’s necessary to “sell yourself,” literally. Just because it has worked (albeit with unintended consequences) doesn’t mean it’s the right way to do it.
This problem can only be solved on the front end. It can’t be solved after the fact. Once the client has bought you, you have to deliver you. Solving it on the front end means changing the way you sell.
Recognize the sale is never about you. Instead, you want to focus on the reason that the client will hire any lawyer (not just you):
- She has a specific goal in mind.
- There is a problem she wants to make go away, limit the impact of or recover from.
- She wants to exploit an opportunity.
Conduct your sales conversation in a way that helps her conclude that her best odds of achieving the desired outcome is to make you responsible for it. (See “First Time Meeting with a New Client.”)
Talk about the problem or opportunity. Demonstrate that you understand the problem by asking astute questions about the context in which it arises and within which it must be solved. Prospects recognize that these are questions that could only be asked by someone with the requisite experience. Most people will conclude that someone who understands the problem that well can solve it.
Don’t talk about how you’ll help her once you’ve been hired. Help her now. Lead her to greater clarity, which is a prerequisite to being comfortable enough to make a decision and pull the trigger on a solution. That will also make her comfortable with trusting you to get her where she needs to go.
Be humble. Acknowledge openly that the successes attributed to you were actually the product of a high-functioning team, whose whole is much, much greater than the sum of its parts. You may be the most visible and celebrated member of the team, but you can’t deliver what she wants alone. You are the leader of the team, defining its strategy, guiding its actions based on the full team’s input, and assuring exemplary performance.
Make sure the client is buying the value of the whole team. Just as you must avoid associating the service value with your own skills, avoid attaching it to other individual team members, too. Otherwise, you’ll merely shift the client’s demand (and the problems associated with it) to a different lawyer. Make sure that the client is buying the team, and its track record of integrating various skills and disciplines to produce the desired outcome. Invest the team’s value in its processes and procedures, i.e., its “how.” The “how” transcends individuals and survives any defections.
Team Asset vs. Main Worker Bee
Some years ago, an M&A lawyer I coached proved the wisdom of this “team asset” philosophy. Over the years, he’d helped his client acquire more than two dozen companies. As you’d expect, over time, people joined and left the team and the firm. However, the M&A team never missed a beat. Their “how” was so reliable that, when a newly appointed general counsel declared she was leaning toward using a larger firm, the company’s business-unit leaders convinced her that would be a mistake. They positioned the firm’s team as a corporate “capability asset” that they’d all invested in co-developing over the years, an asset that could be counted on to complete the transaction on time and under budget. They never mentioned a single lawyer’s name, only the integrated team.
That is what you want your clients to buy (and protect). And when they buy the team, that’s what they’ll get — however you’ve decided it should be constituted on any given day, according to your best judgment. You’ll decide who will serve in which roles, when and to what degree. That includes your own role. What’s important is that your client is relying on you as the single point of accountability, not the main worker bee.