Clients 2.0: Collaboration Creates Enduring Relationships

  • August 05, 2014
  • Edward Poll

My last column applied the interactive, participatory concept behind “Web 2.0” to the coaching process.

The 2.0 idea can be applied to virtually anything in the lawyer’s life and practice, and that includes the most basic element of all – the relationship with the client. Without clients there is no reason to be a lawyer. Lawyers don’t just practice law, they serve clients.

This following story brings this home: The Wall Street Journal recently reported that an estate and trust lawyer left one of the most prestigious and profitable New York firms for one where his compensation will be considerably less. Why? So he could continue to advise a longtime client, a former CEO who is now suing his old company that the lawyer’s old firm defends. The client was quoted as saying of his lawyer, “He is a man of integrity and loyalty. I know it’s unusual these days, but he understands that a lawyer’s loyalty and responsibility are to his client.”

That statement defines a collaborative, enduring lawyer-client relationship. It’s the direct opposite of the one way street that so often exists, where the lawyer tells the client what to do (we call it “counseling”) and submits the bill. Collaboration is synonymous with the 2.0 client relationship, and it’s the best way for any lawyer or law firm to thrive.

Collaboration Equals Communication

A recent study contended that doctors talk three minutes longer with their patients (clients) than other professionals (lawyers) and that doctors are sued less than lawyers. The article drew a cause-and-effect lesson that is probably far-fetched.

But it is true that the focus of the conversation between a professional and a client/ patient/ customer must be to understand the intent, desires and wants of the client. Only then can you shape your professional advice. If the two are in harmony, and you inform the client (so the client understands clearly) what to expect, there is little likelihood of a malpractice claim.

Communication skills are obviously vital ingredients to a successful lawyer-client relationship. It's essential that the client knows what the lawyer is doing, and that the client approves of the tactics to be taken to achieve the goal.

Effective lawyers find out not only what clients need, but also what they want. That requires communicating with clients at their level of understanding, finding out how they best receive information and then providing it to them in a way they find useful. 

The obligation to promote quality communication between attorney and client and to assure that the client has a good understanding of what to expect lies squarely with the attorney, as part of his or her professional responsibility.

Relationship Levels

Apply that lesson to what I define as the four levels of the lawyer-client relationship:

  • Level One: Satisfaction. This is the minimum threshold of a legal services relationship and is synonymous with communication. Law firms that don’t learn what clients want, how they want to receive it and that don’t anticipate their future needs will have dissatisfied clients that will eventually leave.

  • Level Two: Exceeding expectations. This goes beyond mere satisfaction, but can be hard to define. Often client expectations are set too low because their lawyer did not explain at the start of the engagement what was reasonable to expect. This represents a communications failure by the lawyer that amounts almost to deceit and one that cannot be sustained. There is good news and bad news here. Assuming the lawyer exceeds the client’s expectations (good news), this level of satisfaction becomes the standard for the following engagement (bad news). If you don’t do more, you will move down the scale to merely satisfactory.

  • Level Three: Earning loyalty. The measure of this level is time, where the firm maintains client relationships over years and even decades. Communication is the foundation here as well—sometimes the client contacts the law firm first when new needs arise, other times the lawyer offers a new service or idea that the client hadn’t expected. The client gives the lawyer the final opportunity to meet competitive offerings.

  • Level Four: Collaboration. This is the culmination of all three levels. Lawyer and client work together to assess needs and develop a proactive, interactive law approach, making recommendations to each other about actions and decisions that are mutually beneficial.

Case Study in Collaboration

One area of legal practice where collaboration defines the most effective relationships is family law. Effective family law practitioners never forget that they are dealing with human lives. Their goal is to bring a sense of order to troubled situations, communicate honestly and directly about the legal and human difficulties involved, and maintain full confidentiality at all times.

These family law practitioners look to collaborate with clients who:

  • believe we can help
  • realize that the previous marital relationship has “died,” and who will accept our assistance to advance to the birth of a new life and its relationships
  • understands that the lawyer-client relationship is a two-way street: the attorney delivers legal services and the client pays for them
  • is in harmony with the lawyer on the philosophical approach on handling the death of the marital relationship.

These characteristics define other areas of law, such as estates and trusts practice. Clients appreciate lawyers with the ability to communicate complex financial and legal issues clearly, so that they fully understand all the implications of the planning process. They want a trustworthy counselor who understands all aspects of the wealth planning and management process, and who can adapt them to family situations as needs and plans evolve.

Such lawyers work with their clients during the course of years, or even decades, during which time the client is treated as a valued friend whose personal needs are paramount. A good estate planning lawyer helps individuals and families with some of their most complex challenges, like assuring the future care of a loved one and resolving the future direction of a family business. Once they earn the client’s confidence in meeting challenges with skill and sensitivity, the relationship endures.

Technology has proven to be an effective collaboration tool for family lawyers. Websites allow family lawyers to present credentials more completely and authoritatively for client examination, and offer helpful background information to understand the legal process more clearly. Blogs enable family lawyers to combine personalized observations with facts and insights in a way that clients can take the time to understand. These same tools make it far easier for the lawyer to research complex innovations and new legal developments, and apply them to client needs. When communication and interaction are made easier, collaboration is the result.

Extending the Concept

Large corporate law firms dominate the legal landscape today. Family law, by contrast, is one of the last vestiges of personal legal counsel. There will always be room for the family law practitioner who is sensitive to the needs of the human condition while remaining knowledgeable about the business environment. Family law may or may not be a “hot” field at any given time, but it will always be a staple in the context of human needs and the legal profession.

However, the same collaborative dynamic can in fact apply to even a large corporate practice, and can counterbalance convergence. Convergence is the trend among large corporate clients to reduce their legal expenses by paring down the hundreds of outside counsel firms to a few that do commodity work at fixed rates.

The effective lawyer or firm can show that collaboration produces more effective representation at a lower cost to the company without discounting either the value or the per hour fee of the lawyer. It might involve:

  • the lawyer suggesting ways to manage an IP portfolio more effectively, or offering to submit electronic invoices that itemize and detail services provided.
  • the client suggesting ways to pare back discovery costs in litigation by agreeing to a reduced number of depositions.
  • both sides using technology (extranets and knowledge management systems) to share information more effectively. The important thing is that communication and interaction replace a one-way process.

Learning a Lesson

Not too many years ago, three major companies dominated the North American automotive market. When Nissan (then Datsun) and other Japanese companies first came to North America, they asked us as drivers what kind of car we wanted. We told them, they listened, and they began to include the features we wanted. North American car companies, on the other hand, had gotten fat and sassy. They no longer listened to their public, no longer made cars with quality, and no longer cared about their legacy and long-term reputation. The Japanese did, and they succeeded through the concept of collaboration.

Communicate regularly with your clients. Make them feel like part of the team. Seek out their opinions, ask them what they want to accomplish, explain the reasons behind your advice. Visit them at their home or business (and at no charge) to get a better understanding of what is important to them. Ask, “How am I doing? Should I be doing something differently?” That’s what “Clients 2.0” requires—the result will be enduring client relationships.

Edward Poll ( is a certified management consultant and coach in Los Angeles who coaches attorneys and law firms on how to deliver their services more profitably. He is the author of Attorney and Law Firm Guide to the Business of Law: Planning and Operating for Survival and Growth, 2nd ed. (ABA, 2002), Collecting Your Fee: Getting Paid from Intake to Invoice (ABA, 2003) and, most recently, Selling Your Law Practice: The Profitable Exit Strategy (LawBiz, 2005).