Great lawyering work – through the client’s eyes

by Jim Durham /

In order to be a great lawyer, you need to know the perceived level of importance clients attach to the work you do for them. You can disagree with a client’s characterization of what you are doing, but at the end of the day, it’s what the client thinks that matters.

Most law firm marketing materials say something like: “We have extensive expertise and experience providing cost-effective legal services on a wide variety of matters with a sensitivity to client needs and relationships.” That pretty much covers all of the bases—but it means nothing. Every lawyer and law firm makes these same claims, and for much of the work that lawyers do for clients, some of these alleged benefits are actually irrelevant.

Clients describe the work lawyers do as falling into three categories: commodity work, bet-the-company work and important work.

1. Commodity Work

For commodity work, the driving factor in selection and client satisfaction is cost. Doing the work with no hassles for the client and being responsive are good, but it is really all about having the lowest price. Accordingly, if the client perceives the work as commodity work, you are wasting your time talking about expertise, teamwork, and relationship-building. If you are doing this type of work, your primary goal must be to do it efficiently and inexpensively.

2. Bet-The-Company Work

At the other end of the spectrum is so called “bet-the-company” work. When a client is facing a problem that could lead to jail time or the end of their business, the only thing that matters in choosing and judging a lawyer is expertise. Cost-saving efforts and relationship building will not determine client satisfaction. It’s all about the result. Certainly, if you do bet-the-company work while being nice and keeping cost down, that will never hurt you, but it is not where you should focus your efforts.

I have learned from talking to hundreds of clients and lawyers that clients perceive about 25% to 30% of the work lawyers do generally to be commodity (using my definition that the exclusive selection criteria for the work is price). For some clients, the percentage of perceived commodity work might be 90%, and for others 100%, so it is critical to know what each client thinks, but generally, it is about one-third of all available legal work. Bet-the company work represents only about 5% of the available legal work in the marketplace. While some problems have broad implications and the results would have a meaningful impact on a company, they seldom rise to the level of “business life-or-death.”

3. Important Work

When lawyers are performing important work for clients, the drivers of satisfaction can be varied as the personalities and operational structures of the clients.

That means that the bulk of the work that lawyers do falls into the “important” category. To be great lawyers, we must understand what matters most to clients when handling their important work. In this category of work, success turns on how clients are treated.

When you are doing important legal work your expertise and competence must be sufficient (but need not be exceptional), and the billing rates or projected costs for the work must be within the range of client expectations (but not necessarily the lowest). Beyond that, the key to client satisfaction is what it is like to work with you; your success will be determined by the actual experience a client has working with you. Ultimately, a client evaluates a lawyer’s performance for important work by asking: “Is this lawyer someone with whom I want to work?”

What impresses one client may be that you have “a strong number two” on the client service team, or that you offer an easily understandable billing format; for another client you are their best lawyer because you provide them with legal updates that they can pass along to management, or you let them use the firm’s stadium box for a child’s birthday party. Another client is thrilled that you give them a weekly e-mail update on the status of all matters, or that you regularly bring members of the legal team to their office (at no cost) to meet the people on the client’s staff.

When it comes to doing important work, one size does not fit all. There are, however, certain fundamental service attributes that all great lawyers understand. I have studied successful lawyers and I have checked my findings with clients to determine precisely what the common characteristics of great lawyers are. The good news is that these characteristics of great lawyers can be emulated by all lawyers.

Learn why authenticity is the key to successful lawyers.