Many clients behave like their lawyers are doctors. They only visit us when they face serious problems that require an expensive and time-consuming fix. They are unhappy when they walk in, mad that they are there in the first place, mad that they didn’t come sooner—and mad when you tell them what it will cost for you to fix their legal problem. What does it mean when you experience this situation with a client? Well, it’s likely the client is telling you that lawyers suck.
Defining the Ailment
Why do we suck? Well, for starters, we seem to be one of the few professions that fail to properly evaluate risks and costs for a client before we start a project. We usually don’t sit down and talk with clients on a personal level about what they really need from us, why they came to us, what they’ve valued about our work for them in the past, what their business goals are, and what services we provide that they don’t care about at all. If we did so, we’d likely abandon some of the dull efforts normally put into a client project that have minimal impact.
Also, we just don’t communicate well with clients, or ensure that our services and value proposition align with our clients’ needs and what they value.
Clients are tired of hearing that there’s a lot of uncertainty built into our business and, therefore, we can’t tell them what it’s going to take to solve their problem. This is not surprising—lawyers rarely set fixed or sliding fees for projects, they aren’t good at estimating time and resource allocation for a project, they typically don’t track resource usage for later analysis, and they don’t want to change the billing structure and get creative. Plus, there are lots of traditional law firms that still bill hourly—which is so easy a robot can do it—so why change the pricing structure now?
Sure, creating fixed fees or using other alternative fee arrangements (AFAs) for projects can be difficult, if not inappropriate. But here are some basic value questions you might use next time you talk with a client about a new project:
- Why did you come to me?
- How important is this issue to your business?
- If this legal issue isn’t solved, what is the likely business/financial effect?
- Do you have a budget for this project?
- What are the deliverables you expect from us? In what form should we provide them and when?
Sometimes the fees we set with clients after the value conversation occurs need to be adjusted. A client’s needs may change, the timeline may change, or the scope of the project may increase as you dig in and tackle the legal issues. This is when lawyers should pick up the phone and make a call or set up a meeting over coffee. Our clients are reasonable people who understand that situations change. But communication is the key to implementing value-based service offerings.
It’s also the key to maintaining personal relationships with clients and unsucking the client experience.
After working in Big Law for many years, Antigone Peyton discovered her inner entrepreneur and founded Cloudigy Law, an intellectual property and technology law firm in “the cloud.” Now she muses about positive disruption in the legal services marketplace. Antigone’s an unabashed technophile and blogs about IP, elawyering, emerging tech and e-discovery issues on the Decoding IP blog. Before law, she worked as a scientist, conducting clinical and pre-clinical studies at a large medical institution. Antigone tweets at @antigonepeyton.