What does “great lawyering” mean? To many attorneys, great lawyering means possessing enormous technical expertise, good judgment, and years of experience in which to develop those attributes. That’s what we all seek to develop, and it’s usually what we admire in others.
But what do clients mean? That’s the question that really matters. Approval from colleagues only goes so far toward building a successful practice. If clients hold different views as to what matters, there’s a disconnect in perspective. That disconnect can slowly hollow out the practice, without the satisfied clientele necessary for practice growth – and perhaps without that support necessary even for survival.
James Durham has done the groundwork to discover and summarize what clients want and published the results in one of my all-time favorite books, The Essential Little Book of Great Lawyering. The book is aptly named: at just 52 pages (including the title page, copyright, and table of contents), you’ll need less than an hour to discover the essential skills of great lawyering.
According to Durham’s client interviews, a great lawyer is one who knows the law and has “become a lawyer that people trust above all others, and . . . to whom they turn when they (or people they know) have any kind of problem.” In other words, a great lawyer is one who knows and responds to her client’s needs, desires, and preferences. Durham’s research revealed that 90% of clients say that they like lawyers who are responsive and who really know their client’s business, but they seek even more. Great lawyers also communicate clearly, build relationships with their clients, provide remarkable value, and are loyal to their clients.
The Essential Little Book manages to go beyond those generic words to offer specific examples of what lawyers must do to succeed fully in practice. Durham suggests, for example, that a lawyer must know what his client wants to happen throughout the engagement. I would take that suggestion a step further and offer that a great lawyer would ask what specifically his client wants through the representation. (Examples would include determining how much communication is helpful and in what form, how advice might be presented most usefully, etc.) Nevertheless, Durham’s point is well-taken: great lawyers pay attention to what their clients want and need, perhaps even more than the clients do.
One of the key mistakes I see lawyers make is believing that “being a great lawyer” (as measured by technical expertise) is all that’s necessary to build a successful practice. Durham addresses this same problem and offers that being a great lawyer (as defined by clients) is the foundation of a successful practice. I couldn’t agree more.
The Essential Little Book should be required reading for lawyers. Before the end of the year, set aside an hour to read the book. (If you’ve read the book before, read it again. This is one of those books that meets you wherever you are in your practice.) Take another half-hour to set some goals to implement what you learn. You’ll build a much stronger practice as a result.