Finding a good lawyer—one who you trust, who you feel charges appropriately, who gives you practical advice and who communicates clearly rather than through jargon—is not easy! It’s not as difficult as discovering oil in your backyard, but it is nevertheless hard. Some business owners never accomplish it. And it’s even more work to build a lawyer-client relationship that builds value for your business.
Fortunately, whether or not you are working with a good lawyer, you, the client, need to do your job (which is far more than paying the bill) to make the experience as valuable to you as it can be.
Simply put, you need to realize that the lawyer-client relationship is a form of a “partnership,” not in the legal sense, but in the sense that it only works well if each “partner” fulfills their responsibilities.
Here are some relatively easy steps you can implement to improve the services you get, and thus, your bottom line.
Problems need to be seen as something that can be solved. Facts are not problems. The sun rising in the East is a fact. The light coming in from your window is a problem, because it wakes you up in the morning and can be solved—for instance, get better bedroom shades. This points out that the most valuable contribution a lawyer can make to solve your problems is to provide creative, imaginative and previously unrecognized alternatives. And the most valuable contribution you can make as a client is insisting on being given alternative solutions that can then be evaluated the same way you evaluate competing solutions to other business problems—in terms of cost, likelihood of success, consequences of failure and positive results from success.
And, most importantly, this approach to the lawyer-client relationship will challenge your lawyer to do what only they can do—predict the outcome of each strategy. As any experienced client knows, many lawyers are very uncomfortable doing this, because they do not want to guarantee results. To get valuable advice, you need to make it clear that you are not looking for a guarantee, but rather a prediction. The lawyer should, if experienced, have enough data from which to make that prediction. A prediction of, “I can’t be sure,” is saying the obvious. No one can be sure, and this is of little value. Compare that to the value of being told, “You have something like a 30% chance of this working out,” or, “This is by far the best alternative in terms of cost and chance of success.”
When asking for alternatives, always consider that doing nothing is doing something. It is a valuable alternative that should always be considered. Everyone wants a physician to tell them “Do nothing, and let’s see if it goes away.” And no one complains about a bill from a doctor who gives that advice.
Those who feel that being told “do nothing” is worth nothing are not only wrong, they are also insisting on getting what is often bad advice. The fact is that many legal problems, just like many medical problems, are solved by doing nothing. This strategy should always be considered.
Imagine you are lost in New York City. You stop someone and ask, “Where am I?” You may well be told, “You are in New York City.” On the other hand, asking, “How do I get from here to Carnegie Hall?” is far more likely to get, “Go three blocks in this direction, turn left, and then go another block.” (Or, if you ask someone with a sense of humor, you may be told, “Practice, practice, practice.”).
Sadly, many clients ask the wrong questions and get answers that are true but of no help. Lawyers are very literal—as they should be. For instance, the following questions are of little value to you:
You may always be told, “Yes.” That’s because that is the right answer to the wrong question. Instead, ask:
An even simpler question for the lawyer to answer is, “If you were their lawyer, would you advise them to sue?”
Another all too common “bad” question is, “What is the law?” Knowing “the law” is usually of little value. Everyone knows that a tenant that does not pay rent will be evicted, but what if the judge has sympathy and delays the case, or the cost of the eviction is more than the rent for the last few months on the lease? Knowing the law is less valuable than knowing how or when it will be applied, as well as the time, risks and cost of getting the result you expect.
Although the perfect can always be a goal, it is often too expensive, risky or time consuming to be a wise goal. Every contract or transaction (and, in fact, everything anyone does) involves some risk. That risk is taken based on the likelihood of an unwanted event compared to the potential gain if the event does not happen. Strangely, many business owners fail to consider this when entering into transactions, lawsuits or other disputes, such as those regarding contract terms. The data is that over 95% of business disputes are resolved by a compromise. Lawyers refer to this as a settlement. That is never the perfect solution but almost always a good solution, and often the best solution.
The fact that two things happen in close proximity does not mean that one caused the other. If I clap my hands one morning at the same time the sun rises, only a 3-year-old would think that my clapping caused the sun to rise. A client’s role in their “partnership” with their lawyer is to make sure that they avoid seeing coincidence as causation.
Always question yourself as to whether a good or a bad outcome was the result of what the lawyer did or did not do. Question yourself as to whether their proximity was simply a matter of coincidence. If you find your “partner” taking undeserved credit, or you do not give credit when it is deserved, you are not a good partner, and the partnership will not work as well as it could.
Of course, this essay is far from an advanced course on the lawyer-client relationship and management of your lawyer. But, implementing these suggestions will make an impact on the quality of advice you are given and on your insights as to your lawyers’ skills.
©All Rights Reserved. December, 2020. DailyDACTM, LLC d/b/a/ Financial PoiseTM
Henry Krasnow is a Partner at Sugar, Felsenthal, Grais & Helsinger LLP. He provides cost effective strategies to solve the legal/business problems of privately held businesses, family businesses and individuals engaged in business. He has worked in this area for over 45 years, and his work and writing has been regularly recognized by national and…
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