I occasionally wonder what young lawyers think they are getting in to when they commence their legal education. Is it the same as when they hit the ground in a legal career?
Certainly, television hasn’t done us any real favours here – the TV attorney is about as close to real legal practice as General Hospital was to the medical profession.
One of the critical distinctions between TV land and real legal practice, however, is the critical focus on clients. That’s what I’m going to explore today – maybe it requires a shift in mentality on your part, but I encourage you to read on, as grasping this fundamental premise is the only way you are going to be a successful lawyer.
TV Isn’t the Only Source Of Young Lawyers’ Misconceptions
Think about your university education for a moment.
What subjects did you do (or are you doing)? I imagine that you, like most, have done subjects in contract law, personal injuries (torts), a bit of constitutional law, equity, family law, maybe taxation.
Out of the dozens of university subjects that you have available to you, how many of them relate specifically to clients? Perhaps you did a small part of one subject about client interviews. Maybe you had a “pretend” matter to run for a client.
But, by and large, our law degrees are skewed heavily against client focus.
As a result, the perceptions that young lawyers have of what’s important in legal practice are completely stuffed. It’s not deliberate, of course – we all know intellectually that lawyers have clients.
But because our day to day interactions are completely saturated with non-client activities, our brains are more trained to study law then they are to serve clients. Perhaps it’s arguable that’s necessary at first (although I doubt it) – but either way, once you hit real world legal practice it needs to change.
Transition towards Client Service
This is really a transition that every law student and young lawyer needs to go through.
It’s a paradigm shift – you go from operating in the headspace that your job is to excel at the law, to a new mindset of client service.
And it’s critical.
If you don’t get it early on, you’re going to struggle every day until you do. Clients will frustrate you, you will struggle to focus, and you’ll lose energy more quickly than you ought.
But once you appreciate and adopt the servant mindset, you will be able to be a far more effective lawyer every day. You will have purpose and inspiration, and you will have drive to get the job done faster, better, and with passion.
With that introduction in mind, I wanted to give you 5 strategies to ensure that your practice is focused on your client, and not on your own brain.
Client Service 1 – Lawyers are Servants (transition your attitude)
OK so it’s hard to say that “change your attitude” is practical advice, but it’s an important first step.
How do you view clients? Are they a necessary evil, or are they an integral part of legal practice?
Really your attitude needs to change in 1 primary respect, and it’s not actually about your client – it’s about you.
Lawyers are pretty well known to have massive egos. Party that comes from many lawyers being clever, and partly it comes from the face that people come to us for advice. As a result we can end up thinking that somehow we’re better than the people we advise.
We are merely servants. We exist to help people. We have a skill set and certain amount of knowledge that permits us to help people and businesses with their legal issues.
And if you think that makes you better than other people, consider this – how does that description make us any different to a household servant from the 1800s? Sure, we provide a critical service, and if we do it well then we will be highly valued by the people we serve, and rewarded accordingly.
However we are easily replaced – there are many others who do what we do, and despite what we might tell ourselves, most clients have no qualms about taking their business elsewhere on a whim. It’s for that reason that trust and relationship are so important.
Ultimately we exist to serve. Get used to it.
Client Service 2 – Be Natural (transition your behaviour)
I’m sure you know this in your head, but clients HATE lawyers who sound like lawyers.
Don’t speak like you’ve just memorised a book of long words (anyone who’s met me can stop laughing now).
Don’t write letters that make sense only to the author.
Explain complex legal concepts in a respectful, comprehensive way, but avoid being patronising.
In short – be a normal, natural, authentic human being.
Why? Because people respond positively to other people. If you are aloof, pompous or incomprehensibly – you will diminish trust, and struggle to develop real relationships.
Client Service 3 – The Golden Rule (transition your motivation)
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” – heard that one before? Traditionally it’s called the Golden Rule.
Have you tried putting it into practice in your legal career?
Part of our unfortunate self absorption is that the method we practice law in can become very selfish.
We write letters that are too long, not because it’s necessary but because we are risk averse.
We deliver presentations and write articles that are extremely boring, because we can’t be bothered putting the time or creativity into making them better.
We fail to take our clients’ considerations into account and, in doing so, end up with unpaid bills.
Almost all of the fundamental elements of legal practice can be summarised in the “golden rule”. Sure there are some specific ways to implement this rule in legal practice that can help protect you, but the easiest way to ensure that you are being client focused is to ask yourself before each task: “is this how I would want this to happen if I was the client?”
Go and Serve
If you keep your practice focused on serving your clients (and others, for that matter) then, quite simply, you’re going to have a more successful legal practice than those who don’t.
It’s not about pandering, being a “hired gun” nor about sucking up – it’s about ensuring you are about your client’s needs, not your own.
Service is a fulfilling, rewarding, and world changing attitude to have – you can take it with you anywhere, and it will always do you well.