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July 06, 2008

Does client service mean "being nice" to clients?

Bad clients still call. They deserve respect--but they're stone nightmares over time. I'll refer them to you. Have fun.

The answer to the question is no. "Being nice" to clients is not the goal or point of client service.

We didn't launch WAC? because yours truly is loved by all, and wanted to show you the utility of his famous charm or Alan Alda- and Mr. Rogers-like skills with those we pitch or represent. We started it because even the better and higher-end lawyers have remained "lawyer-centric", haven't a clue about what good clients think about, and treat even to-die-for clients like troublesome peasants. We started WAC? because no one in the global legal or business community, other than Chicago's Patrick Lamb and the Canadian Bar Association, was talking about CS compellingly by (a) actually putting clients first, and (b) explaining just how to do that.


Marrying substantive skills to the Art of Client Service is the way to get and keep good and great clients. Not all clients. We at WAC? believe we know what CS is: it's thinking about and acting on the obvious client service aspects presented by everything you do for those clients in your services firm (but no one else thinks about), and disciplining everyone around you in your firm to do it with you. You build a service culture from the ground up from which all else flows, right down to that last opinion letter or Rule 12(b)(6) motion your firm wrote, client by client. Everyone around you must buy into it--or leave.

But unsophisticated clients are legion, "evil" and hold you back. The truth: most clients are not worth the trouble of representing. A client with a real legal problem to be solved--and money in hand to cover your labors--is not enough. A "good client" to my law firm and to this blog is a business, preferably a publicly-traded one, or at least large and experienced enough to be a sophisticated user of legal services. If the would-be client does not have a General Counsel (i.e, at least one in-house counsel), that's almost always a bad sign. We are not as

interested. The prospect of a new client is always an exciting thing. I'm reminded of a piece for his ongoing "Legal Spectator" column in the Washington Lawyer that D.C. trial lawyer Jacob Stein wrote years ago, which captured it: how a new client can thrill you, playing with your imagination, and firing your curiosity. "What's this about? What can we be doing? Who here should work on it?" It is part of the pleasure and joy of lawyering.

But once we at my firm--we represent established businesses--learn that no GC will be involved, we become disappointed. We pass. We would rather spend our time expanding the work for the clients we have--or look for a new one with a solid in-house department after researching that company very carefully. GCs are of much higher quality than when I began practice in the 1980s; these days, they are smarter, more confident, better paid. They (a) give you interesting work, (b) know the value of good legal services (and how hard good lawyers work), and (c) have resources and often very fine ideas. Sticking with them for our firm has been a good rule.

Don't get the wrong idea. Any would-be client who calls your firm--even flaky ones who you don't want to even talk to--should be treated with respect and routed to someone who can help him, her or it. Don't make them think lawyers really are heartless schmucks. And remember, those callers and inquirers are clients (even if just temporarily) the moment they disclose facts about the matter. Your duty at that point is more than just one of good manners, getting them to the right lawyer, and showing some class.

But, for my firm, with exceptions (and not many) a good general rule is: no individuals, no start-ups, no small businesses. Individuals (even rich ones) and start-ups with good ideas are a pathetic pain in the ass 95% of the time. Small businesses, even if they can afford you, are even worse. Be very nice to all three--but avoid them. The Reason: Most "clients" who come to your firm don't "get" good lawyering. The can't distinguish your firm from the generic, uninspired, cookie-cutter, go-through-the-motions but well-meaning law firm down the street. They don't "get" business generally. Even many business clients don't even "get" the business they are in, and are trying to operate.

This group--both individuals and businesses with money in hand--will only frustrate you. And the group is huge; it accounts for perhaps 95% of all clients everywhere.

I myself was one of these creatures two years ago--at least to the guys who painted my house in California. I didn't know anything about house painting, had no clue about price or quality, and didn't know how to evaluate what was proposed or done for a very long while. (By the way, they did great work, despite my interferences.) I was admittedly ignorant, suspicious, and probably a world class jerk. I asked questions, most of them rudimentary. But I likely frustrated them because I was so dumb. Your corporate law firm that you work in can shoot higher than unsophisticated "punters"--just as the house painters (who also did commercial work for contractors who knew what to look for in a good client) could get way better clients than me.

Client Service is Putting Good Clients First--and never putting up with clients who don't "get it". The biggest mistake (#1) I've made practicing law as a lawyer has been taking on projects for unsophisticated clients who really need help; my heart triumphed over my head. My second biggest mistake? Not firing the "bad" client faster. A "bad" client is a miserable, tortuous hell for you and yours. Bad for morale, bad for business, no fun to represent. Life, folks, is short--and with the right people, even a firm with 5 to 25 lawyers can do 90% of the type of work done by mega-firms (the quality of which seems to keep declining as they grow by diluting their gene-pools), and do it better.

But bad clients (i.e., most clients, even very rich ones) still call. They deserve respect--but they are stone nightmares over time, especially if you do complex corporate things at your shop. But I'll refer them to you. Have fun.

*Getting yourself out of the Yellow Pages and off similar lists is a good way to cut down on "bad" clients.

Posted by JD Hull at July 6, 2008 06:00 AM


Let me add my two or three cents as someone who occasionally retains outside counsel when we [General Electric in Italy] have the need and lack the resources internally.

First, whether we can be deemed sophisticated is a relative term. Pretty hard to be an expert on everything, everywhere - and my own levels of sophistication in retaining counsel tend to decrease the farther I get away from core practice areas (geographically and substantively). Second, I like to remind our outside counsel at times that I'm not the client, the shareholders are, and the in-house/external counsel relationship is about safeguarding shareholder value, not personality stroking.

Third, and really the only point I meant to make: outside counsel need to listen to us, but also appreciate that our job is one of balancing the commercial risk (and helping the business accept it) with keeping the business out of trouble. Concrete guidance is the service we expect. Above all, we need lawyers who have a spine, not a Mr Rogers who will tell us it's a beautiful day in the corporate hood when they should help us spot an arriving storm.

Posted by: Michael McIlwrath at July 6, 2008 12:12 PM

Wow! I was just talking about these issues with a partner today. Lots to consider with your post. I don't agree entirely relative to some smaller businesses but you definitely have a point. It's very wise to fire "bad" clients to increase your productivity with the good ones.


Posted by: Rush Nigut at July 7, 2008 05:53 PM

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