December 12, 2017

Coach’s Corner: Be a Lawyer and a Teacher

Rebecca Mieliwocki of Burbank, Calif., was recently named 2012 Teacher of the Year and honored by President Obama at a White House ceremony.

Among other impressive achievements in her career, she went to law school. This transition is not peculiar. Lawyers are, after all, teachers. They tell stories to instruct jurors and judges for the benefit of their clients.

But lawyers may not realize that they can use teaching techniques in many other ways to make the business of law more successful.

Consider just a few examples and ask yourself how good a teacher you are.

Justify your fees

Value is ultimately determined by the client, not the attorney. But it’s the attorney who must educate the client about the value of his services.

Most clients recognize the importance of and are willing to pay a fair fee for value. What they do not want is to pay for inefficiencies, duplications or unnecessary services.

To avoid fee disputes, lawyers must regularly demonstrate that their skills and the way in which services are delivered to the client coincide with what the client wants and needs.

Blog to inform

Lawyers often know a great deal about industry and economic issues that are important to clients, and can educate their clients about trends and developments using blog posts.

A blog combines the lawyer’s observations on breaking legal or regulatory issues with specialized content and research and can offer the option to comment and ask specific questions. This defines a teaching relationship — and also often serves as the beginning of a client relationship.

Educate your staff

In the current law firm world, lawyers and staff are affected by the ongoing transformation of client expectations and legal service delivery. Lawyers must take the lead in helping all staff members understand this change.

More than the continuing sluggish economy alone, firms are contending with upheaval in the way law is practiced. Secretarial assistants, technology specialists, project managers, any staff — they all need a better understanding of the forces reshaping law firms, and the lawyers who employ them should provide that understanding.

Emphasize the value of beyond-the-case effort

Young lawyers too often view themselves as being at the mercy of the firm’s partners when undergoing annual reviews. They can enhance their situations by educating the partners on what the lawyer has actually done in a key area, such as business development.

Attending lunch or bar association functions, posting blogs and client updates, writing articles in trade or legal publications are all valid marketing activities. The young lawyer who engages in them can make a convincing argument at review time: “This is what I’ve done to promote myself and promote the firm.”

Don’t assume these efforts are well-known tactics. Teach those who matter about the value of the effort.

Education is all about communication. It is essential that those with whom a lawyer interacts knows what the lawyer is doing and understands why it is being done. As lawyers, our job is to help others. Constantly conveying how and why you are doing this is an excellent way to derive greater personal satisfaction from your practice.

Ed Poll is a nationally recognized coach, law firm management consultant, and author who has coached and consulted with lawyers and law firms in strategic planning, profitability analysis, and practice development for over twenty years. Ed has practiced law on all sides of the table and he now helps attorneys and law firms increase their profitability and peace of mind. He writes a syndicated legal column, Coach’s Corner, where this post originally appeared on June 20, 2012.

Coach’s Corner: A No-Charge Client Visit Can Pay Big Dividends

The most cost-effective business development strategy for any firm is to expand current services with existing clients. Current clients are already in hand and don’t have to be identified and wooed. They offer great potential for leverage, as new services can be provided without significant startup costs.

But it’s not a cost-free exercise. Existing client relationships require work and planning if they are to produce additional marketing benefits.

A natural and oft-overlooked starting point is to schedule a friendly, no-stress visit to a client just to talk.

Far too often, lawyers are apprehensive about making such visits, but they should be reminded that clients will not by default be hostile or confrontational; otherwise, they would not have remained as clients. What they want is to feel comfortable with their lawyer, and the best way to make them comfortable is to get them to talk about their business. A client visit should focus on listening to what clients have to say.

Such a visit takes planning if it is going to be successful. Here are steps to consider:

  • Schedule the visit at the time most convenient for the client and for any people the client wants to involve (which broadens your own circle of relationships).
  • When the day for the visit comes, remember that you are there to learn about the client, not to pitch for new business.
  • Never put clients on the defensive with a style of questioning you would use in a deposition or when structuring a contract. Try to avoid “why” questions, which are likely to carry a judgmental tone. You want to convey empathy and rapport.
  • Make all your questions open-ended. Phrase them to give clients the opportunity to provide as much information as possible.
  • Do not feel you need to respond to everything clients tell you. Show interest and demonstrate that you’ve heard, but resist the urge to push new services or ways to help.
  • Make sure you’ve done your research. Clients want to tell you about themselves, but they appreciate the respect you show them by taking the trouble to learn more about them.

The emphasis here is on learning more about the client. Clients want to share information about themselves because they want to trust their lawyer. Clients whose lawyers ask about their plans and objectives begin to think of that lawyer as an advisor and friend, not just someone who sends out a monthly bill.

That raises another important point: A client visit and the time needed for it should appear on the next bill, but with a “no charge” notation. That’s a vivid way of showing that although an attorney’s time is valuable, the client relationship is valued even more.

Finally, don’t make the bill the last mention of the visit. As a follow-up, send a handwritten note expressing thanks for the client’s time, stating why the client relationship is valuable to you, and expressing the wish for lawyer and client to extend the relationship.

That’s the real payoff, because it paves the way for asking: “How else can I help you?” The answer stands a very good chance of equating to new business — with a freshly appreciative client.

Ed Poll is a nationally recognized coach, law firm management consultant, and author who has coached and consulted with lawyers and law firms in strategic planning, profitability analysis, and practice development for over twenty years. Ed has practiced law on all sides of the table and he now helps attorneys and law firms increase their profitability and peace of mind. He writes a syndicated legal column, Coach’s Corner, where this post originally appeared on April 17, 2012.

Coach’s Corner: Do You Have What It Takes to Start a Firm?

I have often argued that that law schools do little to prepare graduates for dealing with the business of law — finance, practice management, client relations — that determines practice success. That puts the onus on new lawyers to do the preparation themselves, especially if they are starting a practice on their own.

Solo or small-firm lawyers need all the traits of an entrepreneur: motivation, acceptance of risk, resiliency, commitment, persistence. You may think you have these traits in abundance, but what do they really mean on a personal level if you want to run your own firm?

A new resource enables lawyers to get some definitive answers for themselves. The U.S. Small Business Administration now offers a self-test, aimed at anyone interested in starting a small business.

The test will prompt you with questions and assist you in evaluating skills, characteristics and experience as they relate to your potential as an entrepreneur. Responses are scored automatically to create an assessment profile for how prepared you are to run your own business. And make no mistake: A law firm is a business.

These are just some of the key questions; consider for a moment how they relate to your own personal knowledge and inclinations:

  • Do you have support for your business from family and friends?
  • Have you ever taken a course or seminar designed to teach you how to start and manage a small business?
  • Have you discussed your business idea, business plan or proposed business with a business coach or counselor?
  • Do you have enough confidence in yourself and your abilities to sustain yourself in business if or when things get tough?
  • Are you prepared, if needed, to temporarily lower your standard of living until your business is firmly established?
  • Do you have a business plan for the business you are planning to start?
  • Do you know if your business will require a special license or permit and how to obtain it?
  • Do you know where to find demographic data and information about your customers?
  • Do you know how to compute the financial “break-even point” for your business?

If there is one running theme here, it’s that the lawyer starting a firm must make a commitment to success. Expressing success in relative terms such as “more revenue” or “greater satisfaction” sets a subjective standard that is difficult to achieve.

The truly successful person wants and needs a target. To successfully start a firm, know what you want to do, who you want to be and how you will provide your clients with value.

Ask a coach or other independent person with knowledge of the profession, its requirements and the requisite skills of entrepreneurship. Ask this person to react to your analysis of your strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. Although such an analysis will be at least somewhat subjective, it is essential to help you understand if you have what it takes to start your own firm.

Ed Poll is a nationally recognized coach, law firm management consultant, and author who has coached and consulted with lawyers and law firms in strategic planning, profitability analysis, and practice development for over twenty years. Ed has practiced law on all sides of the table and he now helps attorneys and law firms increase their profitability and peace of mind. He writes a syndicated legal column, Coach’s Corner, where this post originally appeared on March 22, 2012.

Coach’s Corner: Client Expectations Can Be Managed

Client Needs vs Wants
Successful lawyers must find out not only what clients need, but also what they want. Only when needs and wants are understood can you shape your assessment of the services to provide. If needs and wants are in harmony and you inform the client of what to expect, there is little likelihood of disagreement or a problem in the engagement. The lawyer who does this is proactively managing client expectations.

The obligation to promote quality communication between attorney and client and to assure that the client has a good understanding of what to expect lies squarely with the attorney, as part of his or her professional responsibility.

Essentials of Good Communication

  • Always have a signed engagement letter for a new client, stating as much information as possible about the parties, issues, anticipated strategies, desired outcomes and how much the client wants to pay.

  • Beware of clients who cannot or will not agree to what they want their lawyer to accomplish. Such clients will often be future sources of last minute complaints or emergencies that at best are irritating and at worst can result in errors under pressure.

  • Help clients understand that the fee they are charged meets the requirement of being “reasonable” under Rule 1.5, reflecting the lawyer’s skill and experience.

  • Establish a budget for the engagement that provides common sense estimates of both the time and the expense that the engagement is likely to involve, making it clear that these are estimates and not guarantees. Be sure to communicate constantly about progress in comparison to budget.

  • Consider offering a “performance guarantee” of items within the lawyer’s control, such as the level of service or an offer to adjust the fee if the client is not satisfied. This can reduce clients’ feelings of risk, so that they feel comfortable moving ahead with an engagement.

  • Find out what clients think by visiting them periodically and getting them to talk about their business and to listen to what they are saying. Managing client expectations is possible only by giving clients the chance to clearly and regularly express them.

A Collaborative Relationship
Lawyers and clients should be mutually committed to a collaborative relationship that is founded on communication and understanding. Such collaboration doesn’t just manage expectations – it builds the trust and loyalty that are essential to an enduring relationship.

Ed Poll is a nationally recognized coach, law firm management consultant, and author who has coached and consulted with lawyers and law firms in strategic planning, profitability analysis, and practice development for over twenty years. Ed has practiced law on all sides of the table and he now helps attorneys and law firms increase their profitability and peace of mind. He writes the LawBiz® Tips E-zine, where this post originally appeared on April 26, 2011.

Coach’s Corner: Q&A Law Firm Sale Transactions

I can attest from personal experience that interest in the sale of law practices continues strong and unabated. This may reflect continued economic stress, the aging of the profession or simply greater desire to look for greener pastures outside the law. No matter what the reason, lawyers regularly contact me for help in selling their practices, given that I have helped hundreds of lawyers sell and buy a law practice through my book Selling Your Law Practice: The Profitable Exit Strategy, my articles, my presentations and my hands-on consulting. The questions that I’m asked about practice sales often reflect how little even experienced lawyers know about such transactions. Here are some typical ones from recent conversations.

  • Do I need a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) before holding discussions with a buyer? While circumstances may vary, my general answer is no, because an NDA does not become an issue until later in the process, if at all. However, if a lawyer is more comfortable having one, taking a general version from texts typically found in any law library should suffice.

  • What kind of information would a buyer require? Financial information on the practice is of course essential, and lawyers selling a practice should be fully prepared to provide it. A list of current and past clients is also a necessity for conflicts checks. And remember that selling your practice is no time to be modest or reticent. If you have kept technology up to date, invested in new office space with modern infrastructure, maintained strong referral relationships, be sure to communicate those facts up front. Their value may not be easily quantifiable, but they definitely support the firm’s goodwill: its reputation, client base and client loyalty.

  • What type of contract should I have? Contract is really a misnomer. Typically an attorney for either the buyer or the seller will draft a buy/sell agreement, which both parties will review. Some negotiation occurs, but the agreement must follow the deal memorandum drafted earlier in the process – something that I do whenever I’m asked to advise on the sale.

  • How do I set the selling price? This can literally be the million dollar question. The value to you in selling your practice must be significant, or you would not be interested in selling your goodwill and a buyer would not be interested in buying your practice. Price is normally based on expected future earnings, but may also be affected by revenues that will be earned from the buyer’s talents. Many buyers want to pay a percentage of revenues collected rather than a fixed sum for the practice. However, it is generally preferable to sell (and buy) on a fixed, set sum. Setting that sum is where an experienced negotiator assists both sides in the deal. I have found that I can help buyer and seller reach their mutual objectives better than they could have on their own, simply because of how many transactions I have seen, and my unique approach to the negotiating process.

Ed Poll is a nationally recognized coach, law firm management consultant, and author who has coached and consulted with lawyers and law firms in strategic planning, profitability analysis, and practice development for over twenty years. Ed has practiced law on all sides of the table and he now helps attorneys and law firms increase their profitability and peace of mind. He writes the LawBiz® Tips E-zine, where this post originally appeared on March 13, 2012.

Coach’s Corner: Do Your Due Diligence on New Clients

Under Rule of Professional Conduct 1.16, a lawyer may withdraw from representing a client if “the representation will result in an unreasonable financial burden on the lawyer or has been rendered unreasonably difficult by the client.”

However, withdrawing from a representation already begun is extremely difficult, as much of the rest of Rule 1.16 attests. An attempt to withdraw without adequate communication about and careful records of the difficulty that the client has caused — whether for nonpayment of fees, lack of cooperation or some other failing — may bring a state bar disciplinary action requiring future work without pay to fulfill ethical obligations toward the client.

Withdrawal cannot be done without reasonable notice to the client, allowing time for employment of other counsel, surrendering the client’s papers and property and refunding any advance payment of fees that have not been earned.

The simple fact is that no lawyer needs to contend with such headaches. The antidote to withdrawal is to undertake full due diligence before entering into a formal engagement agreement with the client. At the time of engagement, a lawyer must determine whether the goals of the client are understood and can be met. This also requires determining whether the client will facilitate achieving those goals. And facilitation, as Rule 1.16 suggests, means paying the bill and cooperating with the lawyer.

Due diligence on the client’s willingness and ability to pay should be documented in the initial engagement agreement. This investigation is a step that too many lawyers neglect, though it can be as simple as requesting a credit report from one of the consumer credit agencies or from a business credit reporter such as Dun & Bradstreet.

Once it is clear that prospective clients can pay, a signed engagement stating the terms and responsibilities for payment attests that they will pay. Clients who cannot or will not sign a fee agreement or pay a retainer, or who want to start now and pay later, should be considered suspect.

Cooperation is a similar issue. Avoid a client with unrealistic expectations or demands. Discussing engagement terms will frequently uncover the client who will in the future express irritation with delay, chronically complain about everything, demand constant or instant attention or expect unrealistic or abnormal hand-holding. Telltale signs are when prospective clients:

  • insist that their matter is “life and death”; such clients will often be future sources of last minute emergencies that at best are irritating and at worst can result in errors under pressures;
  • use pressure tactics to urge that their matter be handled immediately.
  • demonstrate a bad attitude toward lawyers and the judicial system, or suggest that they know better than the lawyer what needs to be done; and/or
  • cannot articulate what they want their lawyer to achieve.

Due diligence is a business essential. When you determine that a client will perceive what you do as being worthwhile and valuable, you are more likely to have successful engagements and a financially successful firm. Conversely, rejecting potential problem clients before representation will enhance that success by eliminating fee-collection difficulties and possible malpractice claims.

Ed Poll is a nationally recognized coach, law firm management consultant, and author who has coached and consulted with lawyers and law firms in strategic planning, profitability analysis, and practice development for over twenty years. Ed has practiced law on all sides of the table and he now helps attorneys and law firms increase their profitability and peace of mind. He writes a syndicated legal column, Coach’s Corner, where this post originally appeared on January 23, 2012.

Coach’s Corner: How Do You Increase Revenues?

Law is a business and planning is the first responsibility of a business owner. Business revenues will not increase without a plan to identify the desired outcome and define what is necessary to achieve it. A law firm that does not plan for how to increase its revenues will wind up a practice reflecting whatever walks in the door. It is doubtful that serendipity and whim are the best paths to revenue growth. Taking any or all of these steps offers far greater likelihood of success.

  1. Emphasize Collections. Stipulating payment rates and terms in the engagement agreement and then enforcing them is the best way to maintain and increase revenues.

  2. Hire Laterals. This enables the firm to add revenue from experienced practitioners who have specifically desired skills and a strong book of business to enhance revenues immediately.

  3. Leverage Technology. By making the practice of law more efficient through time savings and efficiency at routine tasks, computer technology reduces costs, enhancing volume and revenue.

  4. Rethink Compensation. A compensation model that ties base compensation to involving other firm lawyers in legal service teams allows for blended rates that maximize profits and revenue.

  5. Outsource Functions. Engaging outside suppliers for transcription, research, document review, data entry and billing reduces cost and frees resources to focus on revenue-generating services.

  6. Raise Rates. There is no prohibition against raising rates at any time, the only ethical obligation is that legal fees be “reasonable.” A firm’s growth history, professional reputation and success, the difficulty of the matter and the sophistication of the client are among the factors that are considered in determining whether a fee is reasonable.

  7. Reduce Overhead. Money spent for space and staffing may be hard to cut, but the best way to do it is throughout the business cycle rather than waiting until income slows.

  8. Stop Discounts. Lawyers should resist client requests to discount any fee specified in the engagement agreement, and should never propose a discount themselves.

  9. Target Clients. Firms can increase revenue notably by focusing on demographics, occupation, location, financials and other characteristics of clients who provide the most desirable work.

  10. Unbundle Services. Structure a laundry list of unbundled services and fixed prices/fees to create a flexible fee structure. It’s the same model used by the airlines to enhance income.

Ed Poll is a nationally recognized coach, law firm management consultant, and author who has coached and consulted with lawyers and law firms in strategic planning, profitability analysis, and practice development for over twenty years. Ed has practiced law on all sides of the table and he now helps attorneys and law firms increase their profitability and peace of mind. He writes the LawBiz® Tips E-zine, where this post originally appeared on August 30, 2011.

Coach’s Corner: How Do You Fully Leverage Paralegals?

The Role of Paralegals

Paralegals have long been considered a highly cost-effective form of leverage, undertaking routine legal tasks under the supervision of a partner while at reduced billing rates that are attractive to the client yet supportive of the firm’s bottom line. These paralegals may be employed within the firm itself or they may provide outsourced services in a virtual relationship. Either way, the most typical tasks they engage in are generally technical in nature: research, document review, organizing client files and the like.

Paralegals Enable a Firm to Create Additional Business

A paralegal’s fundamental task is to allow a firm’s lawyers to do more client or marketing work without running up against the danger of not properly addressing client needs. Paralegals enable a firm to create additional business, using the principle of leverage, that would not otherwise be possible, in addition to reducing lawyers’ stress level.

How to Leverage Paralegals

Once they understand the firm and its culture, paralegals can be leveraged not just through their technical abilities but also for their client service strengths. Consider such strategies as these:

  • Failure to return phone calls or respond to letters is the number one complaint clients have about lawyers. Lawyers may be otherwise engaged, but clients want to be assured that their matter is being dealt with. Having a paralegal step in and assure the client that their inquiry will be answered as soon as possible can prevent many client relations problems.

  • Clients want to know what’s happening with their matter. Even though the lawyer might be doing a great job, if the client doesn’t know that, there’s bound to be a problem – usually at fee-paying time. Paralegals can often handle the kind of communication that clients appreciate, by sending copies of documents, by writing, or making calls for updates. Clients kept informed at every step of their matter are happier clients. Happier clients pay their bills faster and refer other clients.

  • Clients should be able to connect directly with paralegals who may have an impact on their matter or who might be able to answer one of their questions. The client who walks away with an answer, even if not from the mouth of the attorney, is far more likely to be a satisfied client. That means that client service education training is a must for paralegals.

Direct Supervision of Paralegals is Important

In such activities, of course, lawyers must continue to exercise direct supervision of paralegals. But given that, paralegals in such roles can enhance client service and firm profitability.

Ed Poll is a nationally recognized coach, law firm management consultant, and author who has coached and consulted with lawyers and law firms in strategic planning, profitability analysis, and practice development for over twenty years. Ed has practiced law on all sides of the table and he now helps attorneys and law firms increase their profitability and peace of mind. He writes the LawBiz® Tips E-zine, where this post originally appeared on November 1, 2011.

Coach’s Corner: What Is a Successful Lawyer?

Develop the Right Perspective

Successful lawyers tend to work long hours and are focused and passionate about what they do. But in the effort to excel, made more intense by the pressure of economics, trying too much to succeed can cause problems for lawyers. Those who don’t have the right perspective can see their striving for success become counterproductive.

Our Success Motivation

Success is not just a matter of hard work – the thought of 2,000 or more billable hours a year proves that. But the billable hour is only a method of accounting; it is not the reason for working long hours. Our success motivation comes from loving what we do, from wanting to help people and from needing to take care of our families and ourselves.

A Checklist for Success

So, in this context, what is a successful lawyer? The answer lies, not in earning more money or racking up more billable hours, but in moving your professional life down as many of these paths as possible.

  • Do what you love. Passionate, satisfied attorneys perform better, feel better about their careers and themselves. Attorneys who are not happy need to refocus.

  • Put the client first, by treating every client like your only client. Grateful and appreciative clients will always be there for a committed lawyer.

  • Think like an owner. Everything that occurs in the firm’s day-to-day operation important and a focus on increasing revenues and profits is a sure recipe for personal success.

  • Be a problem-solver. Instead of just reacting or being busy with immediate concerns, look ahead for solutions to future problems.

  • Never stop learning. That means going beyond the minimum CLE requirements and continuing to learn new trends and update old thinking.

  • Develop business competency so you can speak the language of your business clients. Presenting advice in this language builds the client’s trust and confidence.

  • Treat colleagues as clients and integrate your practice with others in the firm to benefit from the variety of relationships that they have with the outside world.

  • Make yourself invaluable to clients. If you go the extra mile, providing the service they need and anticipating their problems, you will always compete successfully for their business.

Treat Everyone With Respect

A final thought is implicit in traveling each path. Treat everyone – clients, colleagues and contacts alike – with the same civility and respect you wish to receive. The truly successful person never has to worry about the comments made by others when out of earshot.

Ed Poll is a nationally recognized coach, law firm management consultant, and author who has coached and consulted with lawyers and law firms in strategic planning, profitability analysis, and practice development for over twenty years. Ed has practiced law on all sides of the table and he now helps attorneys and law firms increase their profitability and peace of mind. He writes the LawBiz® Tips E-zine, where this post originally appeared on September 20, 2011.

Coach’s Corner: No Firm Needs to Be an Island

One of the many byproducts of the Great Recession has been a slowdown in the indiscriminate pursuit of law firm mergers.

Combining law firms to increase their size makes them better only when the parties have thought through what they want to accomplish and what synergies exist between them — and the recession showed that few merged firms have done so.

Size inevitably seems to create inefficiencies, and firms are slow to eliminate redundancies.

The strategic plan for firm mergers typically envisions economies of scale, the collaboration among organizations for enhanced product quality and even greater revenue. But such plans will fail without effective integration.

It is difficult to combine two organizations without a great deal of attention to the fears and hopes of the people in each organization. It is almost impossible do it “on the run,” the typical merger approach once the top leaders shake hands on their deal.

Formal mergers, however, are not the only way firms can achieve synergies. No law firm needs to remain an island when there are so many alternatives to merging. Firms can combine their strengths in a variety of informal arrangements that support better service to existing and potential clients.

Here are examples of potential approaches:

1.     Shared space

  • Small-firm or solo practitioners can structure an arrangement in which lawyers share the expense of a reception area, conference rooms, clerical staff and office equipment.
  • Another strategy is renting an office in a larger law firm on a monthly basis, with opportunities for the sub-tenant (small firm) and the tenant (large firm) to refer work back and forth.

2.     Contract lawyers

  • Many small firms hire contract lawyers to provide legal counsel on a specific matter beyond their practice or geographic scope. The contracting firm has oversight of the outsourced legal work and communicates with the client on how the work is applied.
  • Participants in a contract agreement should have their own written fee arrangements.

3.     Retainer arrangements

  • To better serve full-spectrum needs of business clients, firms can establish ongoing mechanisms to call on other allied lawyers as “outside counsel” for help as needed. Such contract arrangements can contribute to work and cost efficiencies if used correctly, particularly if the lawyers involved bill at different rates.

4.     Offshoring arrangements

  • Firms can use high-speed Internet technology to connect with the growing pool of highly educated talent in developing countries where the use of English is widespread, India being the prime example.
  • Such offshore legal service providers can reduce by up to 80 percent the cost of legal functions like research, document review and patent searches, with the work delivered electronically and produced under the firm’s supervision.

5.     Virtual alliances

  • Although these are still emerging, one such model is a group of lawyer-entrepreneurs called Virtual Law Partners, a firm that employs lawyers who work at home and correspondingly saves on overhead and costs clients less in legal fees.
  • The firm and its lawyers are available for contract arrangements, except for litigation (because all work is done at home), and the lawyers keep 85 percent of what they bill. It’s a novel arrangement, but one that, like all of these informal combinations, recognizes the law’s changed business dynamics and client expectations.
Ed Poll is a nationally recognized coach, law firm management consultant, and author who has coached and consulted with lawyers and law firms in strategic planning, profitability analysis, and practice development for over twenty years. Ed has practiced law on all sides of the table and he now helps attorneys and law firms increase their profitability and peace of mind. He writes a syndicated legal column, Coach’s Corner, where this post originally appeared on May 23, 2011.

Coach’s Corner: View Clients in Their Native Habitats

I recently read a newspaper story in which a doctor talked about her reaction when she happened to meet a patient at an airport where the patient worked. Out of the context of the examining room, the doctor was taken aback, at first not recognizing the patient. The experience of seeing the patent as an individual in a work environment gave the doctor an entirely new perspective on the person, even to the point of considering changes in treatment.

How often do we lawyers see our clients in their native habitats? What kind of information might we gather, informal and perhaps even unspoken, that would dramatically alter the advice we provide?

In many cases, quite a bit — yet not many lawyers take the time to visit clients and really get to know more about them, their work and family environments and the possible impact of legal advice on those aspects of their lives.

Clients do not need to be convinced of your or the firm’s expertise, otherwise they would not have remained as clients. What they want is to feel comfortable with you as a professional. The best way to accomplish that is to get them to talk about themselves. Your client visit should focus on listening to what they have to say. The more they talk, the more you will learn about how you can meet their needs.

To make the initial approach to scheduling a visit, just say you want to come by, at no expense to the client, for a visit of several hours to learn more about what they do and what concerns them most.

Schedule the visit for a time that is most convenient for the client. When you meet, never put clients on the defensive. What you want are empathy and rapport.

Lawyers too often slip into adversarial questioning, but a visit to the client’s habitat is conducive to a much more supportive approach. Develop a questioning hierarchy for the type of information you want to receive by using “SPIN,” an acronym for four types of questions to ask:

  • Situational. These are the questions that you ask at the start of the meeting to set the stage and gather background — the “how are you doing” kind of questions.
  • Problem. These can be more specific and focus on concerns — the nagging issues that keep a client up at night. But don’t ask about them in a way that evokes fear or defensiveness.
  • Implicit. These subtle questions can bring out more information on issues that the client has raised. They can help the client understand the seriousness or urgency of a particular point and demonstrate that you’ve heard and understood what the client has to say.
  • Need. This kind of question can bring out specific objectives (and help you think of how you can meet them) if the client has spoken about concerns or issues in a general way.

None of the questioning is unusual or intensive. What makes it work is that you’re doing it in the client’s home base — at no charge — with no pitch for new business. The goal is a stronger relationship, and the client’s habitat is the best place to forge it.

Ed Poll is a nationally recognized coach, law firm management consultant, and author who has coached and consulted with lawyers and law firms in strategic planning, profitability analysis, and practice development for over twenty years. Ed has practiced law on all sides of the table and he now helps attorneys and law firms increase their profitability and peace of mind. He writes a syndicated legal column, Coach’s Corner, where this post originally appeared on May 30, 2011.