I recently got a lift to the airport from a lawyer at a mid-sized firm who I’d met only earlier in the day. “It must be a pleasure to work for you,” he said.
On the one hand, that seemed strange, since I work so hard to establish a public persona that I’m a pain in the neck. (Frankly, that’s not much of a charade.) On the other hand, this seemed not at all strange, since I’ve now grown accustomed to lawyers at firms sucking up to me.
But I figured I’d play along: “Why would it be a pleasure to work for me?” I asked, innocently. “I’m pretty tough on our outside counsel.”
“Because you can tell good from bad. You worked in private practice for 25 years, and you’ve labored in my field. I suspect that, back when you were playing the game, you could write a pretty good brief. When an outside lawyer sends a bad brief to you, you may criticize it, but at least when a lawyer sends a good brief to you, you’ll recognize that it’s good. I work with an awful lot of clients who can’t distinguish good work from bad.”
Ha! Here’s an issue that I’d noticed when I was in private practice, but never really thought about. And it’s an issue that arises frequently in-house, because an in-house lawyer’s clients typically are not lawyers. My chauffeur may have thought that he was currying my favor by flattering me, but in fact he was doing something much, much better — he’d given me fodder for a blog post.
What should lawyers do when their clients can’t tell good legal work from bad?
At a law firm, there are many reasons why clients may not be able to distinguish good legal work from bad. First, an individual (as opposed to corporate) client may not be particularly sophisticated and may have little experience in the legal field in which you’re giving advice. Second, even a corporate client may not have in-house counsel, or may not have an inside lawyer with expertise in your field. (A great transactional lawyer may not be able to identify a great brief, for example.) Third, a corporate client may simply have bad in-house lawyers, who have legal training but no ability to tell good work from bad. (I know, I know: It’s sad, but it happens.) And there are probably a half-dozen other explanations that aren’t immediately springing to mind.
Go in-house, and analogous things happen. If you work at a corporation with a large in-house law department, then junior in-house lawyers may often be working for senior in-house lawyers. Those senior lawyers may have a keen sense of what is good legal work and what is bad.
But reduce the size of the in-house law department, or assume the role of one of the senior in-house lawyers, and your “clients” — the people reviewing your legal work — once again become non-lawyers, presumptively less able to tell good legal work from dreck. (I say “presumptively” because a guy with an MBA from Harvard who’s spent 30 years doing deals may be a pretty fine judge of legal talent. That person may be a better lawyer than you are, even though he never took a bar exam.)
How do you serve a client who can’t tell good legal work from bad?
First, produce precisely the same quality legal work, no matter the skill set of the client. As a matter of ethics (or perhaps it’s “morals”), you should not produce lower-quality work simply because you can get away with it. And, as a matter of reality, if you file bad briefs or generate crappy deal documents, the proof will ultimately come out in the pudding. You’ll win fewer cases, or see your corporate transactions explode, if you produce poor quality work. Whether or not you can get away with it, you must still produce top-notch work.
Second, be kind to your less-knowledgeable clients. If those clients don’t understand a strategy, a process, a word, or a contingency, do some tutoring. Most clients will appreciate the education and many, once educated, will also hold your legal work in higher regard.
Third, if you’re working with less legally sophisticated clients, then personal relationships may take on added significance. (I’m a little odd in that regard: I’ll retain the right litigator for a case, whether or not I like the person. Then again, I’ve been heard to say: “Attila the Hun? The guy’s got a mean streak, but he’s pretty darn good at his job. Hire him.”) If a client can’t distinguish good legal work from bad, then the client will necessarily be judging lawyers by some other metric. That metric may be cost (which appears to be easy to assess), or it may be results (which isn’t a crazy metric), or it may be personal presence (“Smith is a very impressive guy; let’s use him”), or it may be pure personality (“I interviewed six lawyers. I’m hiring the guy I’d most like to have a beer with.”). Once pure legal skill is no longer the focal point, be acutely sensitive to other aspects of your relationship with your client.
Damned if I know, but I’m videotaping the beauty contest.
Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link) and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.