News Flash: Clients Value Trust More Than Ability

trust bunny

Over at our favorite blawg Simple Justice, Scott Greenfield has an intriguing discussion about how clients and lawyers often have very different ideas about what makes a good lawyer. “Crappy lawyers,” it seems, will still have “happy clients” when the clients can’t tell the difference between “likeable” and “competent.” But “likeable vs. competent” is a false choice. Really, clients are looking for something else.

We have to admit to being perplexed at times by the things our clients are most grateful for. In court this morning, for example, a client was gushing with praise — not because we’d won an important victory that would get him back on the street, but because we’d bothered to go back to the cells to explain it all to him afterwards. For one thing, we’ve always figured it’s just common courtesy to make sure one’s client knows what’s going on, and it’s weird to be commended for mere manners. But more importantly, what mattered to this client was not the skill of his lawyer, but a feeling of personal attention. The victory he literally shrugged off, but he couldn’t stop talking about how much our discussion afterward meant to him. This happens routinely.

But most of our clients are more sophisticated. What they want in a lawyer is not someone who’ll hold their hand, but someone who can get the job done. They have complex cases, and they know what skills and experience to look for (and insist upon). But even among these kinds of clients, attorney expertise is often secondary to other concerns. Reputation, price, the knowledge that someone else is taking care of it for them, even the satisfaction of knowing you’ve retained the most expensive firm in town — all of these things can and do trump the mere ability to do the job better than the next guy.

But no matter what the client values most, it’s all really the same thing. Clients who love the incompetent clowns, just like the clients who value prestige or convenience, just like the clients who value experience and ability — there are all kinds of things clients say they’re looking for, but what they’re really looking for is someone they can trust.

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Trust really is the key, we think, to client feelings about their lawyers. Trust can be earned with proven ability, but it’s not the only way. Nor is it even the best way. After all, being good at your job does not equate to people knowing you’re good at it, or even knowing you exist.

People trust others for a lot of different reasons. But they all boil down to a shared personal connection. Think of all the people (not institutions) you trust, and count how many of them you trust for any other reason. We bet you counted zero. If there is trust, there is a personal connection. The reverse is also true: if there is a personal connection between the client and the lawyer, there is going to be trust.

So we have no difficulty believing that a truly incompetent lawyer, a real embarrassment to the profession, who nevertheless visits clients in jail and takes the time to listen to them and empathize with them, is going to be considered more trustworthy by clients than a skillful attorney who does none of those things.

It makes perfect sense, really. A lawyer who is truly sympathetic to his client is more likely to be trusted to do the right thing for the client. A lawyer who might do the job better, but remains a stranger, is just not going to be trusted the same way.

So maybe it’s not just good manners. It’s also good sense.

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It’s off-topic, but a phrase near the end of that post makes us feel the need to get back on our high horse: “the question seems to come down to whether it’s more important to get the client’s money [emphasis ours] by meeting the client’s likeability needs or to provide the client with great service.”

Now, in no way is Mr. Greenfield suggesting that the goal is to “get the client’s money.” [UPDATE: In a nice followup email, Mr. Greenfield put it very well this way: “My point was that the lawyer who is willing to do anything to be likable, at the expense of competence, is only trying to get the client’s money.”] But, unfortunately, there are quite a few lawyers out there who actually do think that their goal is to “get the client’s money.” And we have huge problems with that attitude. So we’re taking the opportunity to once again point out that this is not, and cannot be a lawyer’s goal.

We really have a problem with any lawyer whose purpose is profit. If you’re in the law for the purpose of making money, you shouldn’t be in the law. The law really is different. It is not a business. It is a profession.

That’s an important word. It gets used indiscriminately, but there are actually only three professions: the law, medicine, and the clergy. The professions are different from every other work in that the first and only concern is the good of the client/patient/parishioner. Profit does not and cannot enter into it. The instant that a professional has an interest in profit, he is no longer a professional, but a businessman. His interests are no longer those of his client, but are his own. We are trusted (aha, so it’s not off-topic after all!) to make life-changing decisions for our clients on their behalf, and do the right thing for them. We lawyers are not businessmen, our interests are not our own, we really are supposed to be different.

Don’t get us wrong, there is nothing wrong with charging money, even a lot of money, for one’s services. But using the law as a means for separating people from their money is simply unprofessional.

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