You can do a variety of things with and to your clients that either add or detract value from the relationship. Of course, our goal is to add value: that’s why clients pay us. If we’re not adding value, ultimately, we’re not getting paid.
How We Diminish Value
An example of a value-detracting behavior is something lots of divorce lawyers do with some frequency; I’m guilty of having done this myself. We sometimes let our clients keep their crazy ideas when we should confront them. We let them get themselves all wound up about one thing or another—something we know doesn’t make sense—and we let it continue. A good example is parents who say they’ll never pay a penny in child support. We let them rant and rant without confronting them. We figure we’ll get to it later.
Failing to get a client on track, even when it might affect our relationship with the client, is value detracting. I find myself tempted to do it in my consulting relationships. I meet lots of lawyers who blame their personal business struggles on others (the associate who left, the crazy client, the hostile court system, etc.) rather than taking responsibility for their situation. I’m sometimes hesitant to point out the flaw in their thinking even when they need some tough love. I don’t want to damage the relationship.
How We Add Value
Certain behaviors make you more valuable to your clients. What can you do with your clients to consistently add value?
Here’s my list of value-adding behaviors:
- Big conversations. Talk about the elephant in the room. Say things others might leave unsaid. Tell the parent making a mistake that he’s making a mistake even though criticizing parenting is socially taboo. Explain how, to a neutral observer, what the client is doing is screwing things up. Be willing to give advice, ask tough questions, and do what you think is right even when it might cost you the relationship.
- In-person communication. Don’t relegate important interactions to e-mail. Pick the right way to communicate for each interaction. Some conversations need to take place in person. Others need the phone or videoconference. Rarely should an important conversation take place via e-mail.
- Take initiative. Don’t wait for the client to call. Be proactive about updating the client and taking the next step. Know what needs to happen and then move the client forward. Never wait for the client to prompt action. Always be one step ahead of the client.
- Do it yourself. Sometimes it’s less expensive, more efficient, or simply better for clients to deal with an issue on their own rather than handing it off to you. The valuable lawyer explains the “do-it-yourself” option and lets the clients choose. It’ll cost you a fee, but it adds value for your clients. Always add value even when it costs you money in the short-term.
- Overcommunicate. Touch base, check in, update, and take the client’s temperature so often that the client knows your number when it pops up on caller ID. Don’t do the expected level of communication—do more than expected. Communicate it, communicate it again, and then communicate it one more time.
- Warning. Warn your clients before bad things happen. Your clients should know what might come and how it might happen. Bad news should never be a surprise because they’ve been warned of all the potential issues that might arise.
- Predict. Be willing to predict. Sure, you’ll qualify your advice, but don’t hesitate to tell your clients what you’re thinking. Give them the benefit of your expertise even when it might come back to bite you. Let them know where things are headed. This is especially important if the news is bad. Let them cut their losses if things aren’t going to turn out well.
- Step over the line. There are social barriers we worry about crossing. Cross them. Don’t hold back. These folks aren’t your best friends; they’re more than that. Your duty to your clients is higher than your duty to a friend. These folks are paying you for advice. You owe them every thought you’ve got. Give it to them even when it’s uncomfortable and awkward. Don’t be constrained by social convention; there’s too much on the line.
Some of these behaviors aren’t what’s given by the typical lawyer to the typical client. They’re more than what we’re used to delivering in many of our attorney-client relationships. They’re extra, value-adding behaviors that give clients the full benefit of having made the smart decision to hire you. So what if the behaviors aren’t typical? Aren’t you shooting for more? Are you okay with being typical?