Mastering New Skills

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By Gerry Riskin | Feb 28, 2014

by Gerry Riskin

Congratulations! You have been admitted to partnership. This is an exciting transition in the life of a dedicated lawyer, with expectations of additional income and greater prestige within and outside the profession.

But as soon as you’ve finished celebrating, you need to turn to the new burdens that have been placed upon your shoulders: the added challenges that come with your new status, which include handling an extra layer of responsibility, plus coping with the additional criteria by which others will judge you.

If you are going to satisfy and surpass the new expectations that come with the partner territory, here are three of the most important skills you need to acquire or hone.

ACTIVELY LISTENING

Most effective rainmakers consistently identify this skill as the single most essential arrow in their quiver. As lawyers, we are trained to talk, present, deliver, and advise. We are often in situations where we have heard similar facts before: Once we believe we have heard the nuances of the matter before us, we rush to offer preliminary advice or just plunge right into the matter. In doing so, we lose the biggest client-relations opportunity of all!

In essence, active listening is a highly disciplined approach to communicating that you are focused on what you are hearing and that you understand not only the facts, but the context as well–and even the emotions. This is achieved by feeding back appropriately through paraphrasing or even body language. It is not about parroting but rather incorporating what you have heard into your responses. At its best, it involves empathizing with the client. For example, in dismal cases, before telling the client how pathetic the prospects of success are, you might let the client know that you understand the anger, frustration, and sense of futility that arise from a situation where the law does not make satisfaction very easy, or even possible.

Warning: Unless you intend to use this skill and are actually conscious of practicing it, you will not achieve its benefits. Some people may be good listeners, but extremely few will actively listen well unless they consciously do so. It is a premeditated act.

Active listening creates a unique and priceless bond with a client. The client feels truly understood, empathized with, and cared about, and feels that he has communicated the importance of the issue at hand.

MANAGING CLIENT EXPECTATIONS

Many find out the hard way that clients don’t appreciate good efforts that fall short of their expectations. Whether we like it or not, we are going to be measured by our clients. The good news is that we can influence the measurement process.

If we take a very passive approach, the ruler against which we will be measured will be exclusively the creation of our client, based partly on reality and partly on the client’s concept of what reality in this instance ought to be. Therefore, if you want to meet or exceed the expectations of your clients, it is essential that you have some input into the construction of the client’s ruler.

Clients observe effort and just naturally expect results. Conveying your effort is inextricably linked to managing client expectations. The client who calls and asks you to take care of a simple, routine matter and is told no problem often wonders later why the bill was more than a no problem might have justified–or why the time frames were a little longer than a no problem should have warranted.

The most common client complaints brought against professionals arise from inadequate expectation management. Many lawyers who are superb technically are dramatically underappreciated by their clients. Conversely, some lawyers with very average capabilities seem to have highly satisfied clients.

Consider two lawyers providing similar services. One hasn’t communicated with a particular client in over a month, but the client isn’t concerned since she has a good grasp of where her matter stands and was not expecting to hear anything for six weeks. The second lawyer hasn’t communicated with his client for the past two weeks, and the client is feeling ignored and forgotten.

The first client, who has been given some sense of the time involved, the level of attention that the matter will receive, and the particular steps involved in moving it forward, has a much better feeling about the lawyer and his work than the second client, who has been neglected.

Managing client expectations involves ensuring a mutual understanding of the value the client places on finding a solution to the problem; describing the steps involved in solving the problem at hand; and conveying the complexity of the obstacles that may have to be overcome, along with the time frames for each step.

Those who are most effective at managing client expectations take the time to get feedback from the client to confirm the client’s understanding of the value, the steps, the complexity, and the time frames of the solution. To make absolutely certain that the process is sustained throughout the matter, the best expectations managers invite client questions and comments throughout the course of the matter, especially whenever surprises are encountered. Every step of the way, the client should be informed how the matter is progressing.

Managing client expectations not only avoids complaints, but is also a key differentiating factor leading to client satisfaction and referrals. The client who receives services consistent with his expectations is motivated to make enthusiastic referrals.

HANDLING CLIENT COMPLAINTS

Also central to being an effective partner is mastering the skills to deal with client problems. The broad categories of unhappy clients you might encounter are the following:

  • People who are unhappy about needing a lawyer. They resent having to defend that lawsuit or prosecute their rights where the law is of limited assistance or the remedies inadequate. We all encounter these clients from time to time. They are sometimes rude, easily displeased, and prickly to deal with, no matter how hard we try. They may view our professional services as a necessary irritant.
  • Reasonable clients who understandably have a specific complaint requiring our attention and action.
  • Clients whose relationships with us began pleasantly enough but a specific incident or event shakes their confidence, perhaps through no fault on our part at all, and tension arises.

The natural reaction to a client complaint is to wish it did not exist. We all like our matters to run smoothly, and a complaint is like sand in the machinery of our busy workday. But evidence reveals that the average unhappy client will tell at least nine other potential clients, and 13 percent will tell more than 20.

The most effective partners know that they must address complaints when they surface rather than waiting for the symptoms to subside. In addition to the obvious benefits of neutralizing what might have been a negative impression, these partners realize that a complaint may very well be a warning sign of danger ahead. Since most people are reluctant to make a complaint, when someone does so, it may represent only the tip of the iceberg of a much more serious problem that may never be verbalized. So dealing with a complaint when it is discovered may preclude a major problem later on.

Resolving a complaint properly is an opportunity to elevate a relationship to a higher plateau. Also, partners who are open to client complaints establish a communications pattern that provides invaluable data for their business development efforts.

The ways that we as lawyers often react to client complaints include:

  • Anger. We become angry, defensive, and lash back with as much, or more, feeling as the client expressed. This will usually serve to encourage the client to seek alternate counsel. A war of egos in this relationship is lost as soon as it begins. Some lawyers will manifest anger more subtly, with rationalizations like “We shouldn’t have agreed to act for them in the first place.”
  • Repression. Some lawyers may assume an “I don’t want to hear about it” attitude toward complaints. While they might not actually use those words, their behavior will speak for them. In these cases, the problem may dissipate on its own, but the truth is that these situations leave scars that tend to cause problems later.
  • Soothing. Attempts to minimize the seriousness of the problem are usually heard by the client as “You’re making a mountain out of a mole hill.” This denies the client the dignity of having the complaint taken seriously.
  • Accommodation. Treating the symptoms of the problem is like a doctor quickly prescribing a tranquilizer for tension rather than treating the reasons for the tension. The how can I make you feel better approach is, at best, only a temporary solution. It may leave the client with the sentiment that you are not really listening to him or, worse, create a pattern where the client imposes upon you for concessions or lower fees by looking very hard for problems with your work to complain about in the future.
  • Logic. Some lawyers prefer to deal with conflict by rationally explaining all the sound reasons why the client should not feel the way that she obviously does feel. This, as a rule, does not change the client’s feelings at all; instead, it makes the client angry that those feelings have been considered invalid. Lawyers who employ this approach seem blind to the fact that there is an emotional dimension to the problem in the first place. There is almost always an emotional dimension to the problem.
  • Joint Problem-Solving. Of all the ways to respond to a client complaint, this approach seems to produce the best results because it examines causes and invites client participation in finding the appropriate solutions.

Therefore, partners who want to turn complaints into relationship-builders begin by getting a full description of the complaint and listening carefully (suppressing the temptation to jump right in and explain what happened). Acknowledge the client’s feelings. Determine what her original expectations were. Even if they are obvious, it may be therapeutic for the client to articulate them.

To involve the client in joint problem solving, it is essential that (1) both of you have a thorough understanding of the problem, including its logic and emotion, and (2) that you encourage the client to participate in identifying possible solutions.

In most cases, there will be rational and effective options that allow the luxury of inviting the client’s participation. This does not quite finish the matter. The client will know you truly care only when you demonstrate it by executing the solution agreed to and then seeking feedback to ensure that the client was satisfied.

Some new partners will deceive themselves into dismissing the importance of these collateral skills on the grounds that the only issue for a good lawyer is technical expertise. I contend that such expertise is necessary but not sufficient. Those who ignore these skills do so at their peril–and risk joining the underappreciated, who mutter about how unfair clients can be.

Those who master these skills are found at the helm of the better partnerships and practice groups, not only practicing these skills but working to ensure that their associates and staff acquire them as well.

Gerald A. Riskin is a former managing partner and a founder of Edge International, which consults to some of the largest law firms in the world. He has taught client-relations skills in more than 300 law firms. He can be reached at riskin@edge.ai or +1 202 957 6717.

© 2001 NLP IP Company. All rights reserved. This article is reprinted with permission from Legal Times (1-800-933-4317 or subscriptions@legaltimes.com).