Reflections: what does a client want from a lawyer? Part 1

Many years ago, when I was working with a FTSE  100 company as a client, the wise old head of legal shared an insight with me:

“Stephen you know when I instruct a lawyer, because of the importance of this company as a client, the lawyers can go into over-drive and proceed to turn over every stone in a flurry of activity, intending to be absolutely thorough and to impress me. But, you know generally, if I want that I will tell them. And often I don’t. When I instruct a lawyer to do something for me Stephen I do so because I see something in them that I like, I see their experience and skill and that is what I want to access. I want to know in all their experience what is their gut telling them about this job, what is their instinct and expectation about the matter in hand. What I am really trying to tap into Stephen is their good judgement, their counsel, which they have built up over the years. That’s what I really want.”

I never forgot that and have always worked hard to live up to that measure.

Another head of legal of a FTSE 100  once said to me:

“What I am looking for from my panel lawyers, Stephen, is innovation, I can buy process lawyers anywhere but someone who really thinks about my business and seeks to innovate for me, to do something that really fits my objectives moving out of the box, that is a person I want to work with”.

Something else I never forgotten and have worked hard to deliver.

Well good process has its place of course and so does thoroughness, both are good virtues in a lawyer and a necessity in their place. But the messages here are, listen to what I want, think about my business, don’t commoditise me or my work and exercise your best skill and judgement.

Now there is an interesting play off here. And I discussed this with them both. The timid lawyer, the process lawyer, has at the back of his/her mind, I have got to get the law right and if I don’t I will be negligent. Not wrong.  But these experienced GCs, astute lawyers themselves, are trying to reach the trust of their outside counsel; they want their counsel to behave like them, to be on their team, to express a view, to take a risk sometimes in doing so and to step out of their comfort zone and exercise a judgement; key issue- what would they do if it were their own business? Couch that in whatever caveats you want. But that is what my clients, big or small, want from me, they want me to take a view. And that is a measure I aim to deliver.

At other times clients need process and they need highly organised process and work flows, that has its place too. A frank discussion with a client at the outset will set the tone. Don’t make assumptions about what the client wants, listen, establish their needs and as someone famously once said “begin with the end in mind”.

Stephen Houston

May 2017