Quality Matters; It Just May Not Be Enough

Edward Wiest sent me a twit asking, What will @ScottGreenfield think, about this post by Jay Fleischman at Legal Practice Pro, a blog about “marketing, managing and growing a profitable law firm.”  I’m glad Ed did, because the chances of my ever seeing this post otherwise are slim to none.  Maybe even less.

Jay’s post, entitled You’re A Good Lawyer – Big Deal, might at first blush seem the polar opposite of my anti-marketing philosophy, where I harangue the forces of evil who promote lawyers marketing themselves as “experts”, or “aggressive, caring, blue,” or “former prosecutor,” or whatever magic words some marketer urges upon the business-less lawyer seeking enough lucre to buy a loaf of bread on his way home.  I’m constantly harping on competence and quality.  Here’s what Jay has to say about it:

There is nothing more annoying that a lawyer who says, “I don’t understand why I don’t get a lot of business.  I’m a really good lawyer.”

Big deal.  Lawyering ain’t rocket science, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  If they do, move away from them as fast as you can.

And this is coming from a lawyer, someone who’s been plugging away for quite some time at it.

We are technicians, schooled in a profession that is part mechanics, part art.  The old saw is that they call it  the “practice of law” because you never get perfect at it.  True words indeed.

Ask any lawyer who’s been practicing in a particular niche for more than a decade and they’ll confirm (if they’re being honest, that is) that the basics remain the same and all that changes is nuance after awhile.  Sure, laws change and precedent evolves – but the basics stay the same.  Nail those and you’re halfway there.  Probably more.

To be fair, Jay’s a bankruptcy lawyer, and his words about what it takes to be a “good lawyer” strike closer to home in his niche than mine.  Or perhaps we just have different ideas about what it takes to be a good lawyer, though I agree that it isn’t rocket science.  For the purpose of further discussion, let’s assume that Jay’s whining lawyer’s self-assessment, that he is in fact a “good lawyer,” is accurate.  What then?

Here’s the ugly truth – no matter how busy you are, no matter how quiet your phones are, no matter how full or empty your waiting room is … that’s entirely up to you.  Nobody else.  Your hand makes the moves on the chess board that results in someone saying, “Hey, that looks like a good lawyer to hire.”  Your efforts constitute the grease that makes the wheels turn.

He’s right.  It’s not enough to simply be good at what you do.  Sitting alone in your silent office, relishing in your quality, doesn’t make for much of a practice.  If you’re the only person who knows that you’re good, then you’re going to be a very lonely lawyer, and your family will be hungry.

But Jay’s position, at least in this post, begins from the premise that you are, in fact, a good lawyer.  This is a critical distinction between Jay’s follow-up suggestions and those of the other marketers, and the “anyone can go solo no matter how incompetent you are” crowd.  First, be a good lawyer.  There is no legitimate way around this first hurdle.  None.

Jay makes some curious observations about referrals, the primary source of clientèle for good lawyers.

But when it comes down to brass tacks (I have no idea where that saying comes from, but I like it) the reality is that people make a decision based on the way the lawyer markets his or her practice.  Word of mouth, advertising, web searches, bar referral programs … whatever road leads “Joe Legal Problem” to the lawyer is definitely NOT in any way related to that lawyer’s overall qualifications.

The only thing that comes close is word of mouth, but only in the form of a referral from a friend or family member who used the lawyer and got a good result in the past.  But even then, the referring client may have gotten a terrible lawyer and a dead-simple case.  Not to trash talk anyone, but sometimes a case is so easy a college kid could bumble his or her way through it.
While he’s right about bad lawyers obtaining the occasional good result, that’s the tail wagging the dog.  More likely, a good lawyer obtained a good result, or at least the best result possible.  It’s generally a good idea not to let oddities cloud one’s vision, even though they do occur.  On the other hand, a website replete with unwarranted puffery about a lawyer doesn’t seem to have much to commend it over word of mouth referrals based on good results, so is it better to get clients based on some modicum of reality or to pursue riches based on a total sham?  The answer to this question tells a lot about a person.

Jay finishes off his post with 8 suggestions of things to do to bring clients into your very quiet office.  Aside from his second suggestion, which implicates some ethical considerations that would apply to New York lawyers, they are pretty basic and pretty good.  Given my admiration for Seth Godin, and my enjoyment of Harold Robbins, there’s some great reading in there.

Of particular note is letting the clients you do have know that if they are pleased with the representation you’ve provided, you would appreciate their letting others know, since client referrals are the best source of business.  This isn’t easy for many lawyers to do, as it feels somewhat slimy and demeaning.  And if clients are happy with you, won’t they refer people to you anyway?  Maybe, but many don’t want to think much about lawyers when they don’t have to, and often merely pointing out the obvious means the difference between them speaking your name some day in the future and standing mute.

But before I end, let’s return to the initial assumption, that the lawyer complaining about his lack of business was, per his self-assessment, a good lawyer.  Says who?  If your phone isn’t ringing, perhaps no one shares your self-assessment?  If you’ve come to this conclusion in the absence of actually providing any competent representation of clients, consider the possibility that you aren’t yet a good lawyer.  Maybe you will be, eventually, but believing in yourself is not a substitute for competency, no matter what anyone else tries to sell you.

The first step is always competence.  Without it, the best you can hope for is to live a lie.

3 comments on “Quality Matters; It Just May Not Be Enough

  1. Jay S Fleischman

    Thanks for your thoughts, Scott. The only question I have is why you think there are ethical implications for stating your areas of practice on your business card.

    I certainly didn’t advise my readers to put down that they specialize (though if they are certified by certain specialization boards that might be alright). However, Rule 7.4(a) clearly states: “(a) A lawyer or law firm may publicly identify one or more areas of law in which the lawyer or the law firm practices, or may state that the practice of the lawyer or law firm is limited to one or more areas of law, provided that the lawyer or law firm shall not state that the lawyer or law firm is a specialist or specializes in a particular field of law, except as provided in Rule 7.4(c).”

    So I’d be interested in hearing your take on #2, and how it has ethical implications in New York – where we both practice.

  2. SHG

    Your comment answers your question.  Under the new ethical rules (effective April 1), lawyers are now permitted to state practice areas, but still contrained by Rule 7.4(c) not to suggest that they are specialists in an area of law unless certified, per the rule.  I’ve seen lawyers whose cards or letterhead incudes language to the effect of “specializing in criminal defense,” which is in violation of the rules.  Your rule 2 didn’t address this and the parameters of what language could be used.  Your comment here, on the other hand, spells out the missing details.

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