Lawyers Being Honest, Even (Especially) When It’s Against Our Own Interests?

Colleagues criticize me because, when pitching to handle a case, I don’t “sell myself” enough.  It’s not just that I don’t sell my own experience or skills well enough, but also that I sometimes don’t paint an overly optimistic picture of the case.  What it’s going to cost.  How we’re virtually guaranteed a great outcome.

These may be valid criticisms, but I’ve always preferred the notion of being conservative about the expected outcome of a case.  I also never want to be accused, at the end of a case, of having misrepresented what it will likely cost to get the desired result.  I’ll admit such honesty has probably cost me business.

It turns out, though, that such honesty may be the very best thing when vying for the role of the trusted advisor.  At a recent conference, I learned that, based on comments gathered from general counsel at major corporations, the perception that an outside lawyer was being honest, potentially against his/her own interests, was actually a relationship “accelerator.”

So, when do opportunities arise for outside counsel to “accelerate” their client relationship through honesty at any cost?  Here are just a few:

1.  “I might not be the best lawyer for this particular case (or deal),” and I know that means you may not hire me.

2.  “I want to make sure you have a realistic idea what this is going to cost,” even though you might decide then not to sue or to settle instead.

3. “Your chances of winning are probably not going to improve by doing this additional discovery,” even though a scorched earth approach is vastly more profitable for me.

In addition to sleeping better at night, an incidental benefit of this kind of honesty is that, while I might not be the perfect lawyer for this particular case, or you decide not to sue this time, I know you are going to trust my judgment.  That’s really what I want, to be the trusted advisor, so you’ll think of me next time, and the time after that.

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5 Secrets to Gaining Client Trust: #5 Respond and Be Present

Ok, these are actually two separate “secrets.”  Think of the extra as a bonus.  As you’ll see, however, these are related and flow from the universal truth that pretty much every client likes to think and feel that he/she/it is the only client in your professional life and the only one you care about.

The first is: Be Responsive.  Whether you communicate with your clients by telephone, email or even text messages, immediacy or ASAP is the name of the game.  Obviously, if you can take a phone call (without violating the second “secret” of this post below) that is best.  If you can’t or your client initiates contact by email, I like to follow the rule of responding within 2 hours.  If it is not possible to respond substantively within 2 hours (very often the case), I like the approach of responding with an email that (1) acknowledges receipt of the client’s communication; and (2) promises to get the answer and/or provide a substantive response within 24 hours.  The important corollary to this policy is not to forget to follow-up with the substantive response within a day.  If you can make this a pattern, and follow it, it helps to lead clients blissfully believe they are you only–or at least most important–client.

Second: Be Present.  For some reason, I find it easy to shut off the world around me when I am with my 4-year-old daughter.  I like to think I’m completely present with her.  This helps me feel like, even though I work a lot and can’t spend as much time with her as I’d like, at least the time we spend together is high quality time.

I try to apply this same principle to time spent with clients, albeit for different reasons.  It’s not that my clients are adorable now and will some day grow up and become, if not less adorable, at least less available.  Instead, I try to put myself in my client’s shoes.  Anyone who pays a few hundred dollars an hour for my time deserves my complete attention.  That’s what I would expect, and that’s what my client should expect.  This means in most instances I do not, when with a client, answer my phone, check the stock market, read and respond to email concerning other matters, or use my iPhone to check the paltry stats on my blog.  In fact, I’m not adverse to leaving my phone in the car or turning off the ringer when I know my undivided attention will be appreciated.  The only exception is when I’m with a client and there’s down time and the client starts checking his or her own email.

I’ll admit it’s challenging to apply both of these habits.  In other words, it can be hard to quickly respond to calls, emails or text messages when I’ve elected to shut off or ignore my phone to be present with a client.  But it’s important, and if practiced with care, is bound to engender client trust.

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5 Secrets to Gaining Client Trust: #4 Make Sure The Client Is Prepared

It is my considered view that litigation lawyers fall broadly into two categories: (1) those that adequately prepare their clients to testify in deposition and trial, and (2) everyone else.  I have crossed both types of advocates and, without exception, lawyers who did not spend the time to properly prepare their client (or other witness) for testimony were corner-cutters most everywhere else in the case.  Like most defense lawyers, I eat corner-cutters for lunch.

There may be barriers to proper preparation of a client for deposition or trial testimony.  The biggest is usually the client.  Clients who are not often involved in litigation have a difficult time understanding the need for serious testimony preparation.  It’s time-consuming, expensive, repetitive, exhausting and generally irritating.  After all, these clients reason, I’m just going to be asked to tell the truth, right? How hard can it be?

Reluctant clients need to understand the importance of adequate preparation.  A deposition that goes bad, if it’s an important witness, can be a game-changing event in a case.  Fortunately, many clients will heed our advice and take testimony preparation seriously. 

Experienced lawyers differ on timing and methodology of testimony preparation.  I recently heard a “rule of thumb” of 2 hours of preparation for every anticipated hour of testimony.  This might work as a general guideline, though we seldom know beforehand how long a deposition is going to last.  I prefer allowing lots and lots of time for preparation, and scaling back the actual time spent based on the client/witness progresses.  Some clients/witnesses are naturally good at the process, others are not so good.  I like to think I know how to improve those who are not so good, and I’ve also developed various methods, which I might share later, for helping increase a client’s comfort level in giving his or her testimony.  Typically, practice alone—using credible mock deposition or cross-examination questions—makes a client more comfortable.  When a client or other witness is comfortable and relaxed, he or she not only gives better testimony, but he or she feels better about the process.  This, in turn, tends to build client trust in my skills. 

Our conduct in defending the deposition itself can also engender (or erode) trust.  Our clients need to know we’re there, alert and in control throughout the deposition.  Effectively maintaining control of the process, strategic objecting, etc. are subjects for other posts.  However, in addition to being alert, I think it’s important to maintain and convey a sense of calm throughout the deposition, even if opposing counsel is nasty or taunting.  I’m of the mind that it is preferable to terminate a deposition that has become uncivil (and seek a protective order), rather than subjecting my client to angry arguments between the lawyers.  It is rare, I’ve found, that a heated argument among counsel during a deposition will accomplish much beyond unnerving my client and leading to potentially harmful testimony.

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5 Secrets to Gaining Client Trust: #3 Bill Thoughtfully and Fairly

Many of us give little thought to invoices we send to our clients.  Invoices are utilitarian and serve an important purpose, at least in a for-profit law practice.  Beyond being a routine request to be compensated for work performed, however, we tend not to give invoices much serious thought.  This can be a mistake.

We should expect that clients will examine with a critical eye everything they receive from their lawyer, whether it is an email, a copy of some work product, or a periodic invoice.  They may look for different things.  For example, a sophisticated General Counsel expects to see high quality legal analysis and skilled advocacy, while less experienced clients may limit their evaluation to whether what they receive looks professional and is free of grammatical or typographical errors.  But every time we transmit written material to a client we invite critical scrutiny of our skills and professionalism.  It is unavoidable.

With this in mind, we should begin to view our invoices, not as a purely utilitarian demand for payment, but as a kind of brochure advertising the quality of our services.  Changes in the way we present our request to be paid can enhance our clients’ trust, not only in our abilities as professional advocates, but also in the fulfillment of our ethical obligation as fiduciaries.

I can think of two billing habits that, if done thoughtfully and consistently, should enhance client trust.  The first coincides with most clients’ chief concern, second only to quality of representation: how much we actually charge.  Similar to my earlier “secret” #1 (Be Honest), it is no secret that, just as we owe clients a duty of candor, we only bill for work we perform at a rate that is reasonable.  That is obvious.  That is Ethics 101, right?

Billing that enhances client trust—the “secret” that is the subject of this post—goes beyond Ethics 101 and enters the more nebulous realm of added value.  I’m not a legal services pricing specialist (a vocation the ABA Journal predicts will soon be a BigLaw fixture), and I try not to over think this stuff.  Instead, I try to follow this golden rule: put myself in the shoes of a client reading my invoice and ask what would I be comfortable seeing and paying if it were me?

There is one absolute truism that seems to resonate with just about any client that is not a Fortune 1000 or larger company: they hate, hate, hate to be charged for telephone calls between the lawyer and the client.  Particularly irritating are billing entries for such telephone calls that last 18 minutes (i.e., .3) or less.  Only clients who work for giant companies that are basically in the business of being sued (i.e., insurance companies, large California employers) can stomach seeing this on an invoice.  Everyone else likes to think they can pick up the phone and ask their lawyer a question—or just shoot the shit—without seeing a $100 (or more) charge for it.  I get this.  However many times we might tell a client “I don’t have anything to sell other than my time,” it is guaranteed to rankle most clients when they are charged for a short phone call with their lawyer.  Sorry.

Now.  Don’t squander an opportunity here.  While I would reduce (or eliminate) the instances you actually bill clients for short phone calls with them, I would continue to ALWAYS record such calls on the invoice, just mark them “no charge,” or something similar.  This engenders trust.  It says to the client, “I am committed to you, I know you want to talk to me without seeing a bill for it and I am willing to go that extra mile for you!”

The second billing habit that can lead to greater client trust relates to how we describe the work we perform.  Just like Tupperware parties, three martini lunches and hiring of first year associates, the days of the simple “For Services Rendered” billing entry are long gone.  But I would argue it’s not enough just to describe a task.  For billing entries to contribute to building client trust, they should not only describe the task but briefly explain, in crisp, clear terms, why the task was necessary.  I think this is particularly important when the task was somehow occasioned by the opposition.  For example, don’t write “Telephone conference with opposing counsel re discovery,” when an equally honest entry would be “Telephone conference with opposing counsel re their request for additional time to respond to pending discovery.”

I also eschew legalese when drafting billing entries for nonlawyer clients.  This sends the message: “I want you to understand what you’re paying for.  I’m not trying to trick you with fancy legal talk.”  Again, this is calculated to gain trust.

I recognize these “secrets” are not brain surgery, or even secret.  But they were things it took me some time to figure out and I hope you find them helpful to your practice.

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Five Secrets To Gaining Client Trust: #1 Be Honest

Ok.  Since trust and honesty go hand-in-hand, this seems pretty obvious and not such a “secret,” right?  The problem is, I’m not referring in this post to the “Don’t-Commingle-Client-Funds-With-Your-Own-Money,” or “Don’t-Say-You’re-Licensed-To-Practice-Law-When-You-Were-Recently-Disbarred” brand of honesty.  Anyone who is a prospective or existing client assumes you’re licensed to practice and not going to commingle funds.  It’s not an opportunity to gain trust.

When I speak of honesty as an opportunity to gain trust, I’m referring to the candor that comes into play when lawyers pitch to get a client or to get a case, and the temptation arises to be overly optimistic.  For example, do you ever find yourself making statements like this: “There’s a good chance we’ll win!”  Or, “Don’t worry it won’t cost much.”  Or, “There’s a good chance we’ll win and don’t worry it won’t cost much!”

I’ve been criticized by colleagues because I’m not much of a salesman.  I try not to oversell myself as some kind of miracle-worker, and I don’t oversell a case, even if it’s a good one.  After all, every piece of litigation carries risks for both sides, particularly if it’s ultimately arbitrated or tried.

I’m not much on puffing.  But I do try to provide a candid assessment of the risks, strengths and weaknesses of a case.  I do this at the outset.  And then I try to do it as the case progresses.  I like to reassess at critical junctures.  A juncture can be critical because it represents a strategic turning point; more often, however, the opportunity (or obligation) to reassess arises because we are about to invest heavily in the case.  These junctures are typically: (1) before filing the action, (2) before undertaking discovery, (3) before escalating discovery or initiating depositions, (4) before filing or responding to a dispositive motion, (5) before a mediation or other serious settlement negotiation, or (6) before commencing final trial preparation (when things tend to get really costly!).

I’ll admit that complete honesty about the risks of a case and/or the potential expense has led some prospective clients to look elsewhere.  I have had prospective clients pass after my “pitch” wasn’t as sugar-coated as they hoped, only to have them contact me later after the lawyer they ultimately hired disappointed them.  I have not, however, had a client complain at the end of a case because I didn’t make them aware of risks or candidly discuss potential costs.  This is the kind of honesty I believe builds a client’s trust in his or her lawyer.

Another potentially thorny area comes when clients look to us for immediate answers.  Sometimes, when an honest answer is “I don’t know,” we are tempted instead to punt.  With mixed results.  I prefer, and attempt to make it a practice, to be candid if I don’t immediately know the answer to a question, and promise to find out.  Even if it’s a question to which I feel I should know the answer, I remind myself that we’re all only human, and a delayed but absolutely correct answer is better than a prompt, but incorrect, one.

A final thought: sometimes the challenge in being honest about the risks or expense of a case comes, not from any intend to deceive, but from a failure to be completely honest with ourselves about the “warts” of a case or what it’s going to cost.  We want for the costs to be reasonable and the odds of winning to be strong.  We want it so badly that we lose touch with reality.  But, as counselors of law, part of what we’re hired to provide is a reasoned, objective evaluation of the merits of a position our client plans to take.  We can’t do that if we’re not honest with ourselves.

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