The vast majority of legal training focuses on technical or specialist knowledge. But, writes Geoff Wild, local government legal teams need to invest in their lawyers’ soft skills if they are really to be valued by clients.
Whether you like it or not, however good a lawyer you are is always much less significant than how good a service provider you are. Clients are becoming more sophisticated buyers of legal services, but not based on qualitative judgements about the lawyers’ legal skills.
Clients will congratulate you on things that they can see and value. They will appreciate you hitting their deadlines, keeping within budgets, working hard, going the extra mile, communicating in ways they can understand and use. They want solutions not problems; they want ease of use not clever argument; they want service not surly.
Service is therefore more important than legal expertise, there is more competition than ever before and your existing clients therefore matter more than ever before.
Are your lawyers equipped with the skills to deliver a service that your clients will value in comparison? Are they trained and developed so that they see the breadth of their role and are equipped with the soft skills they need to deliver value their clients will see and understand?
Probably not, because lawyers do not easily interpret the underlying needs or the interest of their clients beyond the legal brief; instead, they tend to work to their own agenda and in the way that suits their best interests. They work in their comfort zone, adopting a familiar style and method regardless of what the client has asked for or wants. This typical ‘we know best’ attitude is potentially patronising even when well intentioned and tends to be a turn-off even if the result can be justified as being technically proficient.
Lawyers do not always understand that knowledge of the law is not the same as providing an empathetic, client-centric service. Expertise is obviously important but it is also the expected norm for most clients (whether they are well-informed or otherwise).
So the fact that lawyers know their way around the law is never going to be a significant distinguishing factor. However, what is genuinely valued by client is a sense of thoughtfulness, of care and integrity. The appearance of the lawyer who is seen to be working hard for the client is therefore often much more prized than the end result.
The assumption lawyers often make is that the client is bound to appreciate their efforts otherwise they would not have hired them in the first place. But ‘being there’ is not enough.
The client, in most cases, is in an emotionally vulnerable position when instructing a lawyer. Going to lawyers therefore is a stressful thing to do; yet because lawyers have been there and done it, usually many times before, they at least have the wherewithal to reassure, to comfort and to encourage clients to relax and trust in the experience that is now deployed on their behalf.
Why then do lawyers invariably fail to manage the sensibilities of their clients? Why instead do they appear far too often to behave with an arrogant distain for the trust that must be given to them? Why do they not seize the wider possibilities in a client relationship? Too often lawyers seem to have a one track mind.
What they need to realise is that the business of the law is a people business where for the most part you as lawyers are a stress purchase in a world where preconceptions are nearly all negative and where the outcome is neither predictable nor cheap.
If your ability to communicate effectively, to reassure sincerely and to work hard transparently in the interests of the client is not already excellent or outstanding, then spend some time and money on it now. If you do not, you might as well be planning your retirement, because retirement is closer for you than business development is likely to be.
The ideal mode is one where wherever the client touches the legal team (secretary, admin support, trainee, legal executive, solicitor, manager or head honcho) the experience is similar. It is focused, easy to use, client centric and reassuringly good.
Train soft skills. These skills will improve your service and your client’s ability to see your service. Know what the client will value so you can add that value consistently and well. It ain’t marketing and it ain’t rocket science…it’s just essential.
Geoff Wild is director of law and governance at Kent County Council.