Is loyalty cheap?

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Published on 2/25/08

The foundation of any lawyer's life and practice is the relationship with the client. Without clients there is no reason to be a lawyer. Lawyers don't just practice law, they serve clients.

One brief story brings that home. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that a trusts and estates lawyer left one of the most prestigious and profitable firms in New York for one where his compensation will be considerably less. Why? So he can continue to advise a longtime client, an ex-CEO who is now suing his old company, which the lawyer's former firm defends. The client was quoted as saying of his lawyer: "He is a man of integrity and loyalty. I know it's unusual these days, but he understands that a lawyer's loyalty and responsibility are to his client."

Responsibility is not the same as competence. The very first Rule of Professional Conduct (1.1) asserts that "a lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client." But competence is actually a pretty low benchmark. Clients see lawyers as competent, and on a skill level typically can't tell the difference between them. Once you have a law degree and license from the state, you are as competent as the next lawyer.

There's no doubt that the T&E lawyer mentioned above is competent, but that's not what impressed the client. The truly telling point in the client's eyes was that the lawyer chose relationship over money. It's the type of responsibility typified by a Texas lawyer who sent an e-mail to my blog. "I know your coaching is aimed at making a law practice more profitable," he wrote. "But we as lawyers have a fiduciary relationship to our client. It is part of our job to our client to keep the legal fees low. It is our duty to advise the client how to get the legal result desired, at the least possible cost."

I think the writer expected me to disagree, but I congratulated him for his commitment to professional obligations. It is, after all, the obligation of the lawyer to provide services at the lowest cost feasible.

However, this is not the same as saying that the lawyer's fee should be low. Here we can get into the slippery slope of what the fee should be. If the fee should be low, then is $200 per hour, for example, too high? If so, is $150 per hour too high?

The lawyer's true obligation, while earning a "reasonable" fee, is to be fully committed to a collaborative relationship that builds trust over the long term.

Communicate regularly with your clients. Demonstrate clearly that you value them as individuals. Seek out their opinions, ask them what they want to accomplish, explain the reasons behind your advice. Such collaboration builds trust and loyalty.

And that's what the CEO in our example prized in his lawyer — who, even at his new firm, is undoubtedly still earning a very nice fee.

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