Representing An Unrealistic Client

One of the most challenging client relations issues that lawyers face is representing an unrealistic client.  It’s easy to see how a client can fall into what is, objectively, an unrealistic expectation about his situation.  After all, many clients (corporate and individual) are deeply invested in their matter, and many clients (especially individuals)  are likely to have few legal issues, so those they do have are of critical importance, stress-inducing, and wrapped up with a variety of emotions.

Since lawyers by definition deal with a variety of cases ranging from fairly minor to deeply complex, it’s easy for lawyers to lose sight of the client’s perspective on an issue.  Generally, we get a sense of the client’s perspective early in the case, but especially where something is largely paper-based or not on an urgent timetable, it’s easy to let that slip away in the press of business.  And that’s where things get dangerous and unpleasant.

The top client relations skill, then, is to observe the client’s point of view on a case and to keep that in mind while handling the representation.  The result is that if the case takes a small but unfortunate bounce, you might choose to call the client or meet with her rather than send the news via email or letter.

Moreover, keeping the client’s perspective in mind allows you to recognize if and when a client slips into unrealistic expectations about his case, such as the finances (whether that’s legal fees, costs, or the expected damages, settlement value, or cost of the deal), or the speed with which the matter should be resolved.  The quickest way to a dissatisfied client is to lose sight of how the client is viewing what’s happening with your representation.  The second quickest is to fail to tailor your communications with the client to take account of how he’s seeing things.

So, what if you realize that your client is expecting a recovery in the millions when you think (and perhaps you’ve even told the client) that the case is worth only in the range of $10,000, or that the case should be resolved within 2 weeks, etc.?

  1. Communicate.  Find out why your client thinks what he thinks.  You’ll often find that he’s been consulting with a well-meaning but underinformed friend who’s a lawyer or other “expert.”  We all know that a single fact can take a case from “high value” to “dog,” and it’s a reasonable bet that the client will have disclosed only some of the facts, that the “expert” won’t know the law in the area, or that the conversation was only casual commiseration and the client took a comment far more seriously than it was intended. 
  2. Communicate in writing.  We’ve all had the experience at some point of hearing a lot of information and remembering only some of it.  Obviously, the same goes for clients.  So you might consider drafting a detailed engagement letter that includes information such as the expected time to resolution, the expected fees for various stages of the engagement, and/or your initial assessment of the case — all, of course, with language that indicates that this is your best estimate but that subsequent events or discoveries could change the situation dramatically.  Writing such a letter not only confirms that you’ve discussed these issues, it also gives the client something to return to down the line to refresh his recollection.

  3. Address the unrealistic expectations right away.  As soon as you sense that your client is holding some expectation that you consider unrealistic, address it. Immediately.  And be sure other lawyers and support staff who deal with the client are prepared to notice unrealistic expectations and let you know about them, immediately.  Like mold on cheese, unrealistic expectations grow if not cut off.

  4. Explain why things are as they are.  So, for instance, if a client thinks a negotiation is taking too long when it’s about average, share your experience with your client.  Let him know how long things like this usually take, what’s causing any delay, and whether you think the delay is reasonable.  Depending on the situation, this step could be delegated to a paralegal or could be incorporated into a regular matter update to the client.  In other words, be proactive when possible. 
  5. Review your client intake procedure.  A good client screening process is important to your practice and your sanity.  If you find a number of clients who hold unrealistic expectations, perhaps that reveals something about the way you’re communicating with clients in the initial meeting.  (The same holds true if you find yourself surrounded by difficult clients.)  Consider whether you need to spend more time or energy evaluating clients before accepting the representation.  It’s impossible to screen out every client who will be challenging, but if you keep getting these clients, you’ll be well-served by investigating why that’s so.

Identify The Problem, Define The Solution.

When you aren’t achieving the results you want to see from your business development activity, you almost certainly have one of three problems. Identify the problem, make a thoughtful shift, and you will likely see your results change. (The difficulty, of course, is in knowing what change to make, but that’s another topic for another day.)

So, what are the three problems?
  1. Not enough quality potential clients (directly or by referral). You may not be having enough conversations that lead to “getting the business” conversations, or you may be having plenty of conversations, but with the wrong people. For instance, if you’re having numerous business conversations that don’t intersect with your area of practice, you have a “leads” problem. (Unless that is, those conversations lead to your bringing business to a colleague and getting an origination credit even though you personally aren’t doing the work.)

  2. Not enough sales conversations, or not being able to close the sale. Your connections may stall short of an opportunity to discuss a specific legal problem that your prospective client has and to offer your services, or you may find that you’re unable actually to land the work. You won’t be able to grow a sizeable or a stable book of business until you solve a sales-related problem. 
  3. Poor client service. If you don’t serve your clients well (in what you do for them as well as how you provide that service), you’ll have dissatisfied clients. Studies show that unhappy clients often don’t communicate their dissatisfaction but simply take their business elsewhere, leaving the former service provider unclear on what happened. If you’re losing clients often, if you aren’t receiving referrals from your clients, or if your clients have repeat business that doesn’t come to you, you have a problem with client service. Although this problem will initially affect your work with current clients, it will eventually undermine your opportunity to secure new work.

Do you have a problem in one (or more) of these areas? Identifying the problem gives you an opportunity to identify an appropriate solution.

Tend Relationships To Grow Your Practice

While discussing business development plans, I often tell my clients that rainmaking is all about relationships. I also tell clients that good relationships, personal or professional, should be nurtured – even that low-level employee of a corporate client may prove to be a valuable contact one day. This past weekend confirmed that for me.

Clients sometimes question why I suggest maintaining friendships from college and law school, and the weekend offers the explanation. I hosted a reunion for six of my closest friends from college last weekend. Although we stay in touch by email and conference calls, we rarely see each other face-to-face. I was struck by a realization as I looked around at my friends: we’ve come a long way since college.

Of the 6 of us, I’m the only lawyer. Two are in high-level corporate positions, working with multiple law firms and (coincidentally) dealing with issues that were at the core of my interest when I was in practice. And three of the women’s husbands (who are invited for co-ed get-togethers) are in corporate positions as well, responsible for hiring or coordinating efforts with lawyers for some aspects of the business.

The other three women are teachers, and each is also active in the community in some way. One is a community actor and director who serves on several theatre boards in her city, another holds offices in various groups that her sons have joined, and the third is a leader in more community groups than I can count. These women are well-connected.

In the years since college, we have all advanced in responsibility. Through long history together, these friends (and their husbands) know, like, and trust me, as I do each of them. If I were still in practice, these connections would be ripe for business development – not because I would “use” my friends to bring in clients, but because my friends would feel confident in hiring me (or others I recommend) and referring others to me. (And here’s proof: a special “welcome” to the lawyers who have recently subscribed to this newsletter at the suggestion of one of my college friends – you know who you are!). The reverse is, of course, true as well.

Multiple referrals have passed among us over the years, and anytime one of us needs to meet someone for business purposes, working through this extended network almost always gets results. If any of us had judged whether these would be professionally fruitful relationships twenty years ago, the answer would probably have been no. We were either poor graduate students or eager but hungry young teachers, hardly ready to refer business to anyone except perhaps a great restaurant. Circumstances have certainly changed over time. But my friends’ basic attributes have not: they’re sharp, nice, trustworthy, and service-oriented. Those attributes have led them to success in a variety of businesses and relationships, and our connections are now fruitful professionally as well as personally.

This is only one example of how contacts grow. The same is true of former colleagues, junior employees of corporate clients, and so on. Regardless of where or how you meet, maintain connections with people you like and trust. You cannot possibly know where life will take you and your contacts or how (or whether) connections will shift over time, but solid relationships often yield business or other useful resources.

A client recently told me that he wished he’d learned years ago to keep in touch with clients and friends at his peer level. As you advance in experience and responsibility, so will your contacts. In our mobile society, today’s low-level employee at one company may be tomorrow’s vice president at a competitor.

Coaching challenge: Think about good contacts (those whom you know, like, and trust) with whom you have not talked recently. Pick up the phone today and reconnect with a few, or perhaps issue an invitation for lunch or coffee. Nurture these relationships and you will likely find that they pay dividends over time.

Two Sides Of Business Development Disaster

Two levels of activity can undermine your business development efforts: doing too much and doing too little. Think I just won the obvious award? Stick with me for a minute.

It’s no secret that doing too little business development activity means you won’t build the kind of practice you want. If you want word about you to filter out so potential clients come looking for you, you’d better help that word spread. If you think you’re going to inherit a book from a retiring mentor, you’d better have a thoughtful transition plan and a backup approach since clients don’t always want to be part of an inheritance. If you sit and wait for clients to come to you, you may find yourself waiting for drips of business that will never quench your thirst. 

But can you fail to build a book of business because you’re doing too much? You bet. No matter your situation, your time and energy are limited. This is especially true for senior associates and junior partners in larger firms: you have billable responsibilities, administrative responsibilities, professional development responsibilities, and you may well be busy personally as well, with a young family or supporting elderly relatives. And, of course, client demands can come in a cluster, leaving little time for anything else.

If you’re just starting to take on a particular business development activity (or to take on business development in general), you may be tempted to jump into the deep end and cram in as much work as you can that might lead to business. Unfortunately, that isn’t how business development works in most practices.

Taking on too much at one time is a sure recipe for disaster. You start out with great intentions, and maybe even clear plans, but everything falls apart with one little slip. (This is why diet challenges like the Whole30 often don’t work either: imperfection means failure.) You’re more likely to find yourself overwhelmed and discouraged, experiencing a crash-and-burn rather than kindling a brightly burning flame that will power your practice.

Business development is a career-long marathon, an endurance race that requires you to keep moving no matter what. If you try to complete that marathon in short order, you’ll discover it can’t be done. And far too often, those who try to do it all burn out and give up, at least for a while, before realizing later that they still need to build a book of business and now they’re further behind than ever. So take a step, then another, and keep moving as those steps begin to form a road to success.

Action step: what are you planning to start, or what business development project has stalled?  Break it down into doable steps and calendar those. Keep your commitment to yourself and your plan, and you’ll see real progress.

Don’t Let Your Business Development Efforts Derail Your Firm’s Plans.

How does your business development activity fit with your firm’s plans?

The tagline for Fleming Strategic is Building the practice within the firm. Unless you’re a sole practitioner, you must recognize that while your business development objectives and activities are personal to you, they have to fit within the strategy, approach, and culture of your law firm, or you’re likely to hit roadblocks that will make your path bumpy or even impossible.

Today, I’m offering you an excerpt from my book Legal Rainmaking Myths: What You Think You Know About Business Development Could Kill Your Practice.

Meet Paul

Paul was an ambitious Of Counsel practicing intellectual property litigation in a firm of about 100 lawyers. He was a second-career lawyer with a decade of experience in business and marketing, and Paul was teeming with ideas about how he might connect with new sources of business. He would periodically approach his team leader with ideas, and although the leader never explicitly rejected the ideas, he also never gave Paul the green light to move forward with them. Paul asked for a business development budget and was told none was available to him at his level of practice. He suggested that the firm sponsor an upcoming event and supported that request with data about the other sponsors and likely attendees, but he was told that the firm’s sponsorships were awarded based on partner requests only. Paul began to feel stymied, that he had no opportunity or flexibility to try new approaches to business development. He feared that his practice growth would suffer because of the firm’s reticence. The last time I spoke to Paul, he was gamely attempting to fit his approach to business development in the firm’s structure. When I looked him up a year later, he had left that firm.

Clients often tell me about various ways in which their firm, or some lawyers within the firm, stunted their business development efforts, either intentionally or through a lack of attention. If that’s your situation you may be facing the difficult decision of whether to stay or attempt a lateral move. However, there are steps you can take to address the situation.

First, get to the basis for the lack of progress. Is the block intentional, and if so, what’s the reason? You might consider whether the obstructive lawyers are uncomfortable with marketing in general (and if so, try to uncover the beliefs that are creating rainmaker numbness) or whether they’re simply not receptive to the ideas you’re pitching. If you find a general recalcitrance to business development activity, you will likely have an uphill battle to change that. You might raise the question of how the firm (or the team) sees its business development opportunities and determine whether the response is proactive or reactive. If the latter, you’re unlikely to create a shift on your own.

Second, if the stonewalling seems to be tied to your ideas in particular, consider whether your ideas are significantly different in character than the current activity. For example, have you suggested jumping into social media despite the fact that the firm has only a brochure-style website and no other virtual presence? Have you recommended a shift in the kind of client that firm might seek or a new strategy? If your ideas are out of step with the firm’s (or team’s) personality, you’ll probably find a great deal of resistance.

In either instance, you must evaluate the following questions:

  • Can you be successful by adopting the firm’s approach to business development (or its decision to avoid that activity)?

  • Can you suggest an experiment that would employ a low-risk, limited version of your idea to test it? (See Peter Sims’ book Little Bets for ideas on how to do this, and think critically about what parameters to use to ensure a fair test.)

  • Can you implement your ideas without involving the firm or the team as a whole (for example, a newsletter for your clients rather than for all of the firm’s clients)?
  • Are you willing to accept the limitations placed by the firm’s (or team’s) attitude toward business development or its strategy?

Your answers to these questions will determine your next steps.

If you’d like to uncover other rainmaking myths that may be blocking your way, perhaps we should chat. I have space for one new client this month. If you’d like to explore the opportunity, visit this link to schedule a free consultation.