Sy Syms used a brilliant marketing tag to sell his shmatas:
An educated consumer is our best customer.
The message made a point, while flattering those customers sophisticated enough to buy from Sy. Sophisticated consumers would no longer pay higher than necessary mark-ups on clothing, and that it wasn’t a sign that you were cheap if you shopped at Syms, but that you were savvy. Brilliant.
Peter Macmillan, a cognitive psychologist specializing in legal expertise, turns his attention toward one of my favorite words, curmudgeon. Most people use it as a pejorative, as in the old man screaming at the kidz to “get off my lawn.” Macmillan gets the joke.
Anyone who has worked in BigLaw (or in any part of the legal industry, for that matter) will have come across the legal curmudgeon. These are the legal experts who, despite a routine disregard for basic social pleasantries, are excellent at what they do and enjoy a very healthy – and often growing – book of business. Their clients not only accept their ‘eccentricities’ but value highly their unconventional strategies and unvarnished assessments of legal risk.
BigLaw clients are looking for high-quality legal advice delivered to them as efficiently as possible. If a law firm cannot control and master these two elements of the legal adviser’s job (ie quality and efficiency), all the innovative marketing campaigns and enhancements to the ‘client experience’ are of little value. Moreover, focusing too much on making lawyers conform and become more pleasant people could prove seriously counterproductive business-wise.
Why does he discuss this in terms of Biglaw? Newsflash: the clientele is sophisticated. Not always, or in all ways, but it’s a very different focus than most individual clients. The clientele is experienced in legal risk assessment, and couldn’t care less about hand-holding and tummy-rubbing. They want to minimize exposure and achieve the best outcome possible. And guess whom they turn to?
Across the areas of law firm performance that respondents were asked to identify as most important, the highest-rated of all has consistently been quality of technical legal advice. This is also the area where client satisfaction levels remain the lowest compared to the level of importance placed on it. Less important (but with higher satisfaction levels) are billing practices, use of technology, legal outsourcing initiatives, and even lawyer responsiveness.
But how does this play for lawyers outside of Biglaw, and more specifically, for criminal defense lawyers? Glad you asked. Sophisticated clients do not want to be your bestest friend, to hang out with you, to marry your daughter. Sophisticated clients want you to be their lawyer and win their case.
Who cares? You should.
For example, in response to the above-noted Acritas survey which identified legal expertise as the number one attribute clients look for when hiring a law firm, one consultant to the legal industry listed a number of imperatives that law firms should be addressing. These included enhancing brand profiles, improving value-for-money appeal and making their firms more client-friendly.
No mention was made of firms needing to improve the ‘hard’ legal skills of their lawyers, even though this is what clients said they wanted most of all.
Gaining the chops to be a good lawyer is hard. Creating the appearance, by re-branding yourself to be client-friendly, is easy. The latter works with unsophisticated clients, the ones who confuse liking their lawyer with competency. The former is what the sophisticated client wants. And the sophisticated client is the one who appreciates the lawyer’s role, is capable and willing to pay for competent counsel, isn’t a complete pain in the ass and does what the lawyer instructs him to do.
Which may explain why, contrary to the intent of many modern law-practice initiatives, it is still the arrogant and sometimes abrasive lawyer who knows what they are doing who gets more high-quality work than they can handle. And if they’ve been like that for decades and have always run a healthy practice, then they’re also likely to have an impressive book of deeply satisfied and loyal clients.
When I meet a new client, I tell them that if they want someone to love them, get a dog. They didn’t hire a pal to hold hands and sing Kumbaya with them, but a lawyer to save their lives. Would they rather love me during the pendency of their case, and spend a decade or two thinking fondly of me in a prison cell, or give themselves the best chance of prevailing?
What’s that? I can hear you muttering, “but, but, but competency and friendliness aren’t mutually exclusive. You can be both!!!” The legal curmudgeon isn’t an arbitrary jerk, but a tactical one. Like Nigerian scammers, clients are vetted for sophistication, knowing that the unsophisticated client will not only make life miserable by his demands for tummy rubs, but make it needlessly difficult to do excellent work, both for himself and other clients by his excessive demands for unproductive hand-holding time that comes out of the time needed to work on sophisticated clients’ legal matters.
More importantly, there is an inherent conflict between whispering sweet nothings in the unsophisticated client’s ear to maintain that happy and friendly relationship, and the hard, cold and critically necessary commands that will save his life. When you say jump, the sophisticated client asks “how high?” The unsophisticated client says, “I don’t wanna, I don’t feel like it.”
The legal curmudgeon won’t argue the point, explain why it matters so that the client understands and appreciates the rationale for the command. The legal curmudgeon isn’t looking for a “buy-in,” but a client who realizes that his lawyer is telling him to do something, and do it now, because that’s the legal expertise he’s paying for.
Keep in mind, too, the obvious point that a lot of what a lawyer does is necessarily adversarial and combative. This is unavoidable when client interests take precedence over everything else apart from ethical considerations. In this context, do we really expect clients to pay for everyone to have pleasant experiences and enjoy their work, or instead to achieve the objectives that are most important to the client?
You can make fun of legal curmudgeons all you want. But most won’t have what it takes to be one, and so you will never get the sophisticated clients you really want because they don’t want you.