About 10 years ago, three siblings in my extended family decided to have their oldest brother, Joe, added to the brokerage account of their aging, widowed mother. It seemed like the most pragmatic solution to help manage their mother’s finances, so they agreed to have Joe added. A couple of years later, their new financial advisor told them, “You know that having your brother Joe on the brokerage account means that all the money will go to him when your mother passes.” That single sentence was the sum of the advice.
The new advisor was correct and could cite the rules: the money in the joint account would legally transfer to Joe when their mother passed – but the advice was incomplete, leaving out important facts and did not address the family’s needs. The sons’ mother was lonely and in another part of the country, and care workers who were supposed to help her had taken advantage of her in the past and became her “friends.” More importantly, she had a gambling problem; a “friend” had once taken her to a casino where she lost $9000 in a single evening.
The siblings needed more comprehensive advice from their financial advisor that addressed their needs more completely and provided visibility into their mother’s finances. While their solution was not perfect, the siblings did understand that “the money would go to Joe” and knew they could work it out because they trusted each other. But the financial advisor simply stuck to technical advice, missing the opportunity to help his clients come up with a better solution that met their needs.
Needless to say, the family found another financial advisor that was able to set up a trust and work with an estate expert to address the issues at hand.
The story above illustrates an issue that surfaces in a number of professions – including legal services – that provide advice, specialized knowledge, and counsel. Professional management consultants can make the mistake of providing advice that is technically correct, but misses the needs and desired outcomes of a client. And at a time when gaps have continued to surface between law firms’ performance and corporate legal departments’ expectations, it’s more important than ever for law firms to find more ways to bridge that gap and provide as much value as possible for their clients.
Many factors go into how a trusted advisor engages a client, including emotional intelligence and the ability to manage the nuances of complex engagements and challenging client situations. Here are three ways that law firms and aspiring attorneys can acquire those skills and provide better outcomes and increase satisfaction for clients.
Deepen your understanding of a client’s business.
Ask questions and understand your client. What is their business strategy? Key operating initiatives? What is their operational footprint, and what laws are most relevant to them based upon where they operate? What does success mean for your client?
Law firms are being asked to “see around corners” and provide guidance on regulatory changes that may impact their clients. Even with a limited budget for an engagement, a savvy attorney can relate pure legal advice back to the business needs of the client. Perhaps that wasn’t included in the engagement, but by understanding more about a client’s business – including the context of an engagement with them – you may get permission to go deeper or ask questions that help a client understand how to use your advice in the context of their business to achieve better outcomes.
Perhaps you are an associate working on a new engagement. Be strategic and do your homework. When opportunities present themselves, ask your partner for more background or to tell a story about the client. If you can learn as much as you can about your key clients, you’ll be better able to help them as well as your partner.
Understand what other advice has been provided.
I’ve heard of situations in other consulting industries where one part of a firm provided advice that was inconsistent with advice provided to other clients (or even the same client). A strong knowledge management process can help minimize this.
You can leverage your knowledge management system by making sure that information about engagements and prior engagements are captured in the system to help provide more context and history that can inform future advice. This best practice has less to do with technology itself and more about how you use it to capture information and then balance client confidentiality with the “need to know.”
As an associate, you can become an expert in your firm’s knowledge management system. If you have permission, set alerts and monitor news about your most important clients, and wherever possible, seek to develop relationships with those who can help you learn more about your clients and from other perspectives.
Consider scenarios when providing advice.
Compliance with laws and regulations can be challenging. When providing advice, it may be helpful to frame the advice in the context of the business and use that context to walk through alternatives. This can help stimulate thought and guide clients to better assess how to comply.
To illustrate, let’s take the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that was designed to protect the privacy of European citizens and their data. GDPR was adopted in 2016, but was not enforceable until May 25, 2018. IT and management consultants, accounting firms, and law firms everywhere were drumming up business because the vast majority of impacted businesses were highly likely to be unprepared for compliance with the regulation on Day 1.
I’ve heard some crazy advice that lacked context around the likelihood of penalties and enforcement. Some businesses moved their focus away from very important data security tasks that might have been more important and material than the risk of non-compliance on Day 1 for GDPR. On the other hand, some organizations leveraged the GDPR issue to upgrade infrastructure and processes that solved for more than just GDPR.
The point is that having a discussion around alternatives and the likely outcomes of advice can help a client make a more informed decision that can benefit them beyond solving the issue at hand.
The relationship between clients and law firms is changing, and clients are looking for more and more from outside counsel every day. Law firms can strengthen their relationships and help support better outcomes that increase client satisfaction by looking for more value-adding ways to contextualize the counsel they provide. Technology tools can play an essential role, but the processes to deploy those solutions are perhaps more important than the technology itself. And just like the financial advisor that advised the siblings about how to handle the complexities of their elderly mother’s situation, law firms and attorneys have an opportunity to tailor their counsel by acquiring a better understanding of their clients’ needs. Helping a client to understand the full picture can ultimately help them comply with law, achieve their business goals – and grow the client’s trust in your firm to ensure a long-term, beneficial relationship in the future.
Ken Crutchfield is Vice President and General Manager of Legal Markets at Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory U.S., a leading provider of information, business intelligence, regulatory and legal workflow solutions. Ken has more than three decades of experience as a leader in information and software solutions across industries. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.