The Sophisticated Client Wants A Legal Curmudgeon

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?

It’s not because curmudgeons are the best looking lawyers. It’s not because they feel the clients’ pain.

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.



26 thoughts on “The Sophisticated Client Wants A Legal Curmudgeon

  1. Billy D

    Sly Syms! Educated, but not too? Where we come from, educated consumers wore Brooks Brothers.
    Only down-and-out, court-appointed in Westchester Co. shopped Syms. And it showed!?!

    1. SHG Post author

      Sy Syms died with a $67 Million estate. He was no fool. There is purpose in dressing appropriately, having a decent suit. Not everyone can afford one, but if they have the wherewithal to get a cool new iPhone, their priorities may be misdirected.

      1. delurking

        Indeed. I started with suits from Syms. It could take multiple visits, because they often didn’t have a decent suit on the rack in your size, and service wasn’t part of their business model. You could look good in a suit you bought from Syms. It was hard to make the beater car look good, though often they didn’t know which one was mine.

  2. Patrick Maupin

    It will be interesting to see the complaints after a few months from the lawyers who start acting superficially like Dr. House based on this post, and then see their unsophisticated clientele drop off, but somehow don’t see a corresponding up-tick in better-off clients.

    The non-Dunning-Kruger clients don’t need tummy rubs, but aren’t going to be easily fooled by gruffness unbacked by skill, either.

    1. SHG Post author

      What may not be clear is that the skill drives the behavior, not the other way around. You can’t fake being a legal curmudgeon.

  3. Dr Peter Macmillan

    Scott, I didn’t include in my article the experiences I’ve had testing the expertise of legal curmudgeons. As you might imagine, it can be difficult to get them on board given their busy schedules and commitments to clients, but once they’re in it’s invariably a wild and enriching ride.

    One such expert spent much of his test interview telling me why I was all wrong in how I’d designed the test and how impossibly high I’d set the bar in asking for the responses I wanted. Then, after I’d repeatedly asked him to humour me and continue anyway, it took him less than 30 seconds (26 seconds to be precise) to come up with an unusually firm (and correct) prediction about the outcome of the relevant test case – a case in which I had purposely limited available information so as to make it virtually impossible to form such an opinion.

    The same test case was given to other less expert lawyers, and under the same test conditions it took them up to 17 minutes to give highly-laboured responses that were meaningless in terms of providing actionable advice to their hypothetical client. But I have to say, these lawyers were much more pleasant to work with.

    Another highly-expert legal specialist started on a tirade against law enforcement officials mid-way through his test interview. While I can confirm that no foul language was recorded, it wasn’t a pretty sight. At one point he became so incensed I genuinely feared he would leave the lab and head off immediately on a personal crusade to re-educate his contacts at the relevant law enforcement agency whose handy work (as reflected in the test case materials) he described as “silly,” “stupid,” and “ridiculous.” Needless to say, once he’d calmed down, the legal advice he provided was exemplary in terms of efficacy and actionability, even if somewhat lacking in grace.

    Yet another BigLaw partner assured me during his interview that his fictitious client was “F*****” commercially and that regulatory officials should therefore have no concerns at all about their future conduct. It was a classic – and thoroughly justified – case of admitting to the powers that be that his client was effectively impotent and lacked the wherewithal to get into trouble, even if the client itself would rather that that information not be widely known. It may not be good for business, but it was the right course of action in terms of dramatically reducing legal risk.

    1. SHG Post author

      While the analogy suffers from a fatal flaw, I liken it to the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. The nice lawyer may be neither (hence the fatal flaw), but he will invariably think efficiency a greater virtue than effectiveness because the latter is beyond his grasp.

      1. Mort

        The nice lawyer may be neither (hence the fatal flaw), but he will invariably think efficiency a greater virtue than effectiveness because the latter is beyond his grasp.

        And thus we see why people push for legal tech – it gives the appearance of efficiency, to help hide the lack of effectiveness.

  4. EH

    Lots of folks complain about surgeons’ bedside manner. But they still want an expert when they’re under the knife, personality be damned.

    Sounds like criminal defense is like surgery. It sure is different from individual civil; civil clients will irrationally walk away from great cases if you don’t coddle them enough.

    1. Mort

      I would rather have a Dr. House than someone who cares more about my feelings than the medicine, and I’d rather have a Greenfield than the last lawyer I paid actual money to.

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  6. wilbur

    Sy and Marcie Syms sold me more than a few suits over the years, and they wore very well. I’m a tall and slender individual, so all clothes look good on me. It’s not fair, but that’s life.

    Different personalities are suited for different jobs in the legal profession. No matter what your role is, you have to know your stuff.

    I am in the management end of a large prosecutor’s office. I counsel young lawyers that you are a salesperson, and the product you’re selling is yourself. Your word must be your bond, and the end goal is justice, not only convictions.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’ve mentored a few prosecutors who left the office to strike out on their own. They tend to have very peculiar (and unsavory) ideas of how defense lawyers make a living. The sort of ideas that get a kid in deep trouble. I, too, counsel them that their word must be their bond. I also counsel them that we defend criminals. We do not engage in crime. Ever.

      And I tell them they’re now allowed to wear shirts that aren’t white or blue.

    1. SHG Post author

      I was unaware such a show existed. Then again, after Joanie Loves Chachi, there was really nowhere else to go.

      1. Noel Erinjeri

        Bob Loblaw has the greatest slogan ever: “Why should you go jail for a crime someone else noticed?”

  7. S.J.Jones

    You are a Lawyer. You can label, excuse, explain or define the “type” of Lawyer you are. It is irrelevant. You are an asshole. That is shared among all of your field regardless. You, however, seem intent on being the King of Assholes. Instead you are merely a Jester. The small J was intentional

    1. SHG Post author

      I always get a kick out of the lawyer hater comments. When it’s your pathetic ass in the defendant’s chair, you will hope and pray you have the king of assholes sitting beside you. And some asshole lawyer will try to save your life even though you personally don’t deserve it.

    2. Fred Campbell

      As a user of legal services, I enjoyed the repartee above. Yes, lawyers often get a bum rap.
      But, I observe that the legal profession, as a class, is under-disciplined. I suggest that the regulating bodies are primarily manned by other lawyers who do not wish to bring dishonor to the industry. But in doing so, they do.
      I can proffer no solutions to this problem.

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