by Jim Durham / February 21, 2017
A fundamental aspect of great lawyering is recognizing the importance of personalizing the relationship to some degree. In almost every client interview I have ever done, the clients have said that it is important for their lawyers to be “people we like to work with.” They want you to be someone with whom everyone at the client company (or family business or the association) likes to work. Personalizing the relationship does not mean that every client has to be your best friend; it does not mean you have to lavish them with fancy dinners or tickets. But clients make it very clear that “chemistry” matters.
You can start personalizing the relationship with something as simple as going to the client’s place of business for an informal meeting or meal. It is hard to have a sense of what is going on in the client’s life without seeing where he or she works and meeting some of the people with whom they work. If the client always comes to your office for meetings, you are missing a great opportunity to advance the relationship. This is not about “client entertainment,” it is about having a personal connection with the individuals with whom you do legal work.
Clients speak highly of lawyers who “understand the importance of relationships.”
I was facilitating a retreat for a group of associates at a law firm one Saturday, and there were four clients on a panel talking about what they value in lawyers. One of the panelists told the group a story that illustrates perfectly the importance of personalizing a client relationship.
He said that he met an associate for the first time at a closing dinner. During their brief conversation, they discovered that they had a mutual interest in yachting. Several weeks after the dinner the client opened an envelope from the law firm and found an article about yachting that had been torn out of a flight magazine. An informal, handwritten note from the associate simply said: “I thought you might enjoy this.” The client said he immediately called the partner that was responsible for his work, to tell him he “wanted this associate to work on as many of his matters as possible.” Clients— even busy executives and demanding in-house counsel—are real people (not billing categories). They appreciate a little personal attention.
Another in-house counsel said he wished one of his outside lawyers would stop inviting him to attend professional basketball games. He said he liked basketball, but he didn’t get to see his kids enough because of his busy schedule. “If the lawyer really knew me,” he said, “he would know that I prefer not to be out on weeknights.” He went on to say that he and his kids really like professional basketball, and it would be fine to offer him the tickets if the lawyer wanted to do something nice for him (subject to the company’s gift-limitation policies, of course).
Basically, great lawyers make an effort to connect personally with clients in a way that is appropriate for each client. For some clients, it is enough simply to remember to ask how their vacation went, or to send them your best recipe for their favorite type of food. For another, the appropriate personal touch is knowing that they need you to run interference with their boss. For some clients you show you care by sending them a book on a subject or by an author they care about; for others it is appropriate to offer to host their child’s birthday party in the firm’s luxury box.
Getting to know the personal interests, concerns, and desires of the people for whom you do legal work is essential.