David Wong’s brutally honest article, Six Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person, in Cracked made my day. Go read the whole thing. I’ll wait.
You done? Good. You may be a little offended by the blunt and sometimes belligerent tone of the article, but you just learned a valuable lesson: Your only worth in this world is what you can do for other people.
That’s right. Being a good person, being a “nice guy,” isn’t worth Jack. What have you done to make the world a better place? To help people? Or, from your client’s perspective, what have you done for me lately?
You are only as good as the last thing you did for your client.
The practice of law is – or should be – utilitarian in nature. We do stuff for people that they cannot do for themselves. We write contracts. We navigate statutes and codes and case law. We attend hearings and mediations and negotiations and vigorously represent our clients. We write contracts that no one but another lawyer can understand.
Mr. Wong challenges his readers to “Name five impressive things about yourself. Write them down or just shout them out loud to the room. But here’s the catch — you’re not allowed to list anything you are (i.e., I’m a nice guy, I’m honest), but instead can only list things that you do (i.e., I just won a national chess tournament, I make the best chili in Massachusetts).”
As lawyers, listing those five things should be easy. We are, after all, attorneys at the bar. We negotiate deals and draft agreements. We go to court and argue. But those things are intangible. We don’t build bridges or buildings, make stuff, heal the sick, or feed hungry people.
If we are only worth what we can do for someone else, what good are lawyers? In other words, what is the real value of what you do?
I don’t mean monetarily, although certainly that is one measure. In human terms, what is your worth to society?
Do you do pro bono work? Awesome. But we as a society put little value on being so virtuous.
Do you do solid legal research and drafting? That’s the bare minimum of competency our clients expect.
If you litigate, do you win for your clients? Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. Winning the case has value. If you do transactional work, the equivalent of winning might be “screwing the other guy.” But the harsh reality is that you can’t win every case or triumph in every negotiation. Someone has to lose and sometimes that’s gonna be you.
So what good are you to your clients? What value do you bring to their lives?
My belief is that the real value in what we do is not in the outcomes – well, not just the outcomes. It’s all about the relationship. The relief of a grieving widow that her husband’s estate is being handled by their lawyer. The reassurance of a small business owner that her lawyer understands the corporate and tax codes that affect the business. The injured person who knows his attorney is fighting for him, win, lose or settle. Those things matter more than whether our clients get everything they want.
Connection matters. Phone calls matter. Emails matter. Christmas cards matter. Monthly newsletters matter. Letting your client know you are thinking about them matters far more than your billing rate.
No client wants to hear that you are too busy with other clients to take care of them. No client will forgive you if you fall out of touch.
I recently had a client leave my practice because I got really busy and forgot to return her phone call. Her feelings were hurt and she hired another lawyer. It doesn’t matter that I have done consistently good work for her. All that matters is that I dropped the ball.
When we get too busy, have too much on our plates to keep up with it all, the first thing we tend to let go of is connection to the client. If you get hundreds of emails a day, it’s pretty easy to let one or two or ten slip through the cracks. When your phone rings non-stop, it’s tempting to hit the Do Not Disturb button. But staying connected to the client is job number one.
My former boss at Big Law was an absolute MASTER of this fact. He might be several weeks behind on every single file, but by God he made sure every client knew he was “working on it.” He sent texts, emails, and returned phone calls like a champ. He never missed a client’s birthday, bar mitzvah or funeral. He stayed in touch with more people better than anyone I’ve ever known. That’s how he made partner at Big Law. And it’s impressive as hell.
He was a good lawyer, sure. But there are a LOT of good lawyers out there. What made his services worth a premium is that he delivered on the connection with his clients.
As Wong points out, it’s like the famous speech Alec Baldwin gives in Glengarry Glenn Ross. (Yes, that speech is about a lot of other things, too.) Baldwin’s character addresses a room full of real estate agents, telling them that they’re all about to be fired unless they “close” the sales they’ve been assigned:
Nice guy? I don’t give a s***. Good father? F*** you! Go home and play with your kids. If you want to work here, close.
For lawyers, that relationship is the “close.” That connection to our clients is all we have to build a business on.
So, I’ll ask it again: What have you done for your clients lately?
All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.