What do clients value?

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Published on 2/19/07

Clients consult a lawyer because they need help with a problem they cannot solve on their own. This leads to a legitimate question: Which is more important - the quality of a lawyer's advice or the way that advice is provided?

A common sense response is that lawyers' clients value what any person values in a plumber, a doctor and other professional-service providers: show up on time, do what you say you will, finish what you start, and say please and thank you.

These traits came to mind when I read an interesting article in a recent issue of The Lawyer's Competitive Edge about a survey from the Robert Half legal placement firm. The question asked of a cross-section of lawyers was: "When clients are deciding whether or not to continue working with your firm, which one of the following attributes or considerations would you say ranks highest on their priority list?"

The resulting ranking was as follows:

  • Reliability/trust 45%
  • Relationship with client 20%
  • Industry-specific knowledge 14%
  • Timeliness/meeting deadlines 9%
  • Billing rates 7%
  • Diversity at your firm 1%
  • Other/don't know 4%

This list is consistent with the four items I mentioned. In other words, reliability and trust (expressed as "do what you say," "finish what you start" and so on) are the single most important value for clients - at least in the minds of the lawyers surveyed (and I suspect in the minds of clients, as well).

Note that billing rates are near the bottom of the list, and that creative or cutting-edge legal advice isn't cited at all.

Regular readers of this column know that I stress communication with clients as your best guarantee of a successful engagement. Lawyers have a consistent tendency to focus on the task at hand without communicating to the client what they are doing.

You may be doing a great job with documents, the court or the opposing party, but the client is never told and thus never builds up that feeling of reliability and trust. No matter how successful the end result, the client doesn't understand what you accomplished and may refuse to pay the bill when it comes due.

Clients appreciate communication; the more, the better. Show your clients that you're doing your job by sending them copies of documents, by writing or calling them. "Paper" clients, keep them informed and tell them what's happening at every step. Involve your clients in the entire process!

There is a basic principle involved with common lawyer-client communication problems and their solutions: Show your clients how highly you value them by how much you communicate and interact with them. That reinforces reliability and trust. Ask clients how you're doing, have them "rate" (scale of 1 to 10) your service to them, and ask them whether they want you to do something more.

Given this opportunity clients will provide you with honest answers. Then you'll know what they value - and whether they value you for providing it.

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