Teach your clients the law, and you’ll have clients for life. Hide the ball in some vain attempt to make yourself indispensible, and you’ll be viewed like an auto mechanic—most people are always looking for a new one that will get the job done more quickly, reliably, and for less money.
How Your Clients Really See You
Your clients (except those that are friends and family) don’t see you as a golden-tongued Atticus Finch or as a brilliant legal scholar. Clients see you as a person they have to pay, either because they have a problem and need a solution, or because they have been told that some problems can only be avoided with the help of a lawyer. If you teach clients the law, and how it applies to their situation, they’ll feel empowered to decide on solutions and on how to mitigate risk. And they will feel grateful to you for teaching them exactly why and how their situation concerns the law.
Ignorance Is Not Bliss
For example: A client’s would-be vendor and I were squabbling over limitation of liability dollar amounts. While speaking to the client, I realized he didn’t really know what this section of the contract meant. (And how could he have known?) I took a few minutes to teach the client that the vendor wanted to limit its liability (with some crucial exceptions carved out) to a particular dollar amount, and that the fight was over how high that number needed to be. I provided a few examples of ways that the vendor could fail to meet its obligations, and asked the client what that might cost his business. We quickly determined the lowest dollar amount he could accept, and then reached agreement with the vendor on a number that was higher than that. The client understood what this section meant, and why it was important.
Sounds simple, right? But many lawyers, due to paranoia (or perhaps low self-esteem) feel an intense need to build a wall of obscurity around “legal” terms. Instead of teaching our clients, we muck up our writing with legalese, and when speaking try to sound “lawyerly” because, deep down, we fear that if we teach them what we know, we will be out of work.
You Angel, You
In fact, just the opposite is true. When my mechanic explained to me how a wheel bearing works, and how it is replaced, I didn’t decide to start doing that work myself—I don’t have the expertise or the tools. But I like knowing what I am paying for and why. It’s amazing how often I’ve had clients thank me profusely for simply explaining what legal terms mean from the client’s perspective. If you not only address your clients’ legal issues, but ease their minds as well by helping them understand what is happening and why, you change from mere legal mechanic to something akin to a guardian angel. Your client will not fire you because you help him understand why the law matters to him, but in fact he will be happy to promptly pay your fees and refer you new clients.