You’re listening to a client tell their story, and you’re starting to suspect that what you’re hearing isn’t the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And it’s probably not the worst case scenario. The client isn’t flat out lying, but let’s face it, they’re selectively editing what they tell you.
Landmines. That’s what I used to call them. I’d do the intake, think I knew which way was up, and halfway through a negotiation I’d learn that weeeeeeell, he conveniently forgot to tell me something. Something that just so happened to make me look like an ass in front of opposing counsel. Nice. Thanks.
So why don’t clients always tell you the truth? Well, I’m glad you asked: there are three common reasons:
- In their mind, the client hired you for a specific, singular purpose. They don’t view you as a partner who can help them get from point A to point B. For example, they view a commercial attorney as someone who will negotiate a contract, instead of helping them their business with relationships.
- The client doesn’t understand what facts or circumstances are relevant or how they may affect their situation. Instead of sharing everything, they tell you what they think you need to know.
- The client is trying to save money. The more details they include, the higher their legal bill will be.
When you don’t know the whole story – the good, the bad and (especially) the ugly – it’s bad for you and even worse for the client.
It’s impossible for you to be a strategic partner without full information, and it’s extremely difficult for you to just do your job effectively. Meanwhile, the client hasn’t saved any money. In fact, their legal bills pile up when you have to backtrack and make adjustments as details that were previously omitted come to light (if you’re on billable hours) or cause you to spend way more time than you should (if you’re on flat fees).
In my situation, running the practice exclusively on flat fees, allowing this to happen would be particularly painful. Which is why we had a zero tolerance policy for it.
Clients must be educated about the importance of sharing everything with you. You’re the attorney. You know what’s relevant and what’s not. Simply put, they don’t.
By understanding all the facts and circumstances, you can actually save them money by anticipating certain situations that the client can’t. Look, if they really knew what was relevant, they could handle the matter themselves. But they can’t. So they need to be taught when to listen to the expert.
To develop a strategic partnership with your client, you need to be a peer to your clients. And the fact is, most lawyers don’t act like peers. They act like servants. Paper pushers. Rubber-stampers of deals. Letting the client drive the bus, and usually off a cliff.
If you take a subservient role with your clients and simply move forward with anything less than complete information, you’re not only making your life more difficult, you’re risking their outcome being worse. And on any level – from the perspective of you running a business, or representing them as best you can, that’s a failure.
By not demanding the truth, you turn over control of your practice to your clients.
One quick example. Every single competitor of mine let their clients edit draft documents. A client would send in a contract, it would go back and fourth with opposing counsel, with the client adding language here and there in between their lawyer and the other side. That was the cultural norm.
So what did my firm do? Ignore the norm, because it was wrong (a theme you’ll read here a lot). We never let clients edit a document. If we took on a representation, we controlled the drafts. Did it mean some friction with poorly-trained clients at the beginning? Yes. Did it mean we got them legal results far, far better than the hack-job Frankenstein documents other counsel let them create in the past? Hell yeah.
And did it allow us to control the pace of the deal, to ensure we were in the loop, ask real questions about why each weasel word was in there?
Did it mean that over time, our clients actually respected us more for it?
And what does more respect, more control, and more cooperation of clients mean?
Commanding premium prices. It all works together.
You aren’t a scribe. You aren’t a contract monkey. You’re a professional with real knowledge, real experience, and insights that will make a real difference.
Be a peer, not a pawn. The client may have the ultimate decision about which way to go, but you’re the expert. You need to take the wheel, show your authority and set the direction.
When you educate your client and establish yourself as a peer, the client will respect your expertise, your judgment and your time. And they’ll understand that you need to know 100 percent of the facts to deliver the best possible result.