Remember this saying? “Don’t ASSUME. It makes an ass out of you and me.” It’s a little childish and possibly not appropriate for a business blog, but it seems to be a consistent theme of our work lately and one worth considering.
After almost 20 years in this industry, I am still shocked at how much time and money lawyers and firms spend assuming information about their clients. Lawyers hold lengthy meetings pontificating on what clients want, need and expect with little to no input from the client. Or possibly even worse, lawyers often spend no time sharing client preferences when a colleague is added to the team or introduced to the relationship. Law firms are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on research tools to understand what type of work is available, who the competition is and where clients are spending the most money, but they rarely take the time to confirm the research or ask the client directly what matters most and how to make their life easier.
There is immense pride in our industry regarding a lawyer’s niche business or practice area and very little focus on that lawyer’s understanding of the business culture and preferences learned from years of representation. With tremendous pressure for change, firms still spend little time studying how to get ahead of those changes. Billing and budgets? We can’t even say the words with a straight face related to this topic. And we can count on two hands the number of times a law firm has been commended for successfully handling a partner’s retirement or the arrival of a new general counsel.
For a profession that prides itself on precedence, facts, history and evidence, there is A LOT of assuming going on. My sense is it is based on fear—fear of admitting you do not have the answers, fear of looking like you are surfing for work, fear of asking something you should know, fear of being held accountable, fear of failure, fear of the unknown and fear of change. While I appreciate how difficult it is to feel uncertain, I believe making these assumptions is more likely to realize your fears than asking the questions.
After 1300+ interviews with clients and regular conversations with your favorite clients and most coveted prospects, I am confident in one thing: They loathe your assumptions. They often make an ass out of you and/or your client. Your clients and prospects are not looking for perfection. They are looking for honesty. They want confident, capable, business-savvy lawyers who care as much about their business and industry as they do. You cannot become that person without asking questions, knowing their pain points and understanding what matters to them. Assuming your clients want the next case handled the same as the last one can be extremely costly—in dollars and relationships.
Check your fear at the door tomorrow, get off the assumption train and start having candid conversations with your clients: regularly, formally and informally, face to face, over the phone, one on one, etc. Don’t limit the conversations to the work, but also ask about their expectations, their frustrations, their preferences and how you can help them succeed. Then act on their recommendations. You—and your clients—will be thrilled you’ve stopped assuming and started understanding.