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February 15, 2008

What if you only represented clients you actually "liked"?

Only a few books I can find on the subject of rendering services to customers in the business sections of Borders or Barnes & Noble ever mention it. In the context of lawyer services, it's simply this: except for some court appointments and pro bono engagements, what if we only chose to represent clients we liked?

By "like", I mean it loosely: to derive for whatever reason real pleasure and satisfaction while doing legal work for a individual or organization.

My firm shies away from individuals as clients, regardless of his or her resources. We usually represent businesses. So in the case of an organization, we "like" the client because overall we somehow feel comfortable with or maybe even admire the personality, business culture or goals of that client, personally like/admire the client reps and general counsel, or both.

My firm "likes" business clients which are experienced, sophisticated users of legal services. When we perform well, the client appreciates us and signals that appreciation. So then we like the client even more, and want to do an even better job or keep doing the good job we are doing so we can derive more real pleasure from the engagement, and obtain more work.

As simple and as annoyingly Mr. Rogers-esque as this all sounds, we have never, ever had good long-term relationships with any organization client which did not genuinely appreciate what we were doing for it and show it (good clients "get" lawyering, have used different lawyers frequently in the past and understand the vast differences in quality between lawyers out there in the international market), or which had disturbing corporate personalities (i.e., mean-spirited Rambo cultures, groups with employees given to blame-storming, or companies with disorganized, internally-uncommunicative or just plain lazy staffs).

Lots of such "broken" clients make money in spite of themselves--but they are never worth it for the long haul.

We rely on repeat business. For us, there's no substantial reason to accept a new engagement unless we think we might want to represent that client in the long term. For years, I often sensed before the first draft of the representation letter was done that the new client didn't fit us. Usually I couldn't articulate it--or maybe I just disliked the client rep. But because of the money or the prestige of the engagement, we took the project, and kept going after the repeat business anyway. A few years ago, we stopped doing that.

Does my attitude clash with some people's notions of real client service, duty to the profession or basic law firm economics? It sure does. And today I don't think I can practice law any other way. In the long term, having no client is better than a bad client--or one that I don't see courting down the road.

Posted by JD Hull at February 15, 2008 07:47 PM

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