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Summary: In an era when clients have numerous law firm choices and even affordable online options like LegalZoom, attorneys cannot afford to be average.
It’s difficult to find a bad lawyer these days
What, with law school and strenuous practices, lawyers can ill-afford to be poor executors of their craft, or as worse simply average.
In many cases, average lawyers will lose their clients, if not their jobs.
And yet they still exist, even though with some mediocre attorneys, time is running out.
In an era when clients have numerous law firm choices and even affordable online options like LegalZoom, attorneys cannot afford to be average. If attorneys are just ho-hum when it comes to customer service and product, then their business will inevitably suffer when clients go elsewhere. After all, when you look at Yelp for a new restaurant, would you go to the five-star place with hundreds of glowing reviews or the 3-star establishment that looks like it’s barely keeping its lights on? Hiring an attorney has way higher stakes than choosing a place to eat so you can only imagine the decision-making process in clients’ minds.
So how can attorneys be better and avoid the stigma of mediocrity? To answer this, we must first examine what makes an attorney average and why being average is such a bad thing.
What makes a lawyer “average”?
It’s easy to spot a “bad” lawyer. Someone who doesn’t return calls. Someone with sloppy paperwork. Someone who doesn’t read carefully. And in worse case scenarios, a lawyer who is reprimanded by the state bar or who ends up in jail or sued. Basically, an attorney who is incompetent or unethical can be readily labelled as “bad.”
But, while bad lawyers show their true colors early, what makes an attorney “average?”
For clients, an average attorney is almost the same as a bad one. They are attorneys who do the bare minimum when it comes to what their clients value—communication, quality of work, and ethics.
Clients want an attorney who responds to them right away and gives them updates on their case without their pressing. They want someone who will talk to them about their cases in a direct way, and they want someone who is easy to work with, i.e. not rude. Average attorneys may not completely ignore their clients, but they may not respond right away or properly address their clients’ concerns, which can make their clients view them as bad.
“If your attorney fails to communicate effectively with you, then you may have valid cause for your worries. For example, if your attorney refuses to keep you updated on what is happening with your case, or fails to return your repeated phone calls over the course of a week with no explanation, then you most likely have valid cause to discuss your lawyer communication problem with your attorney. If your attorney is not responsive to your worries, then you may want to consider finding another legal representative for your situation,” Findlaw stated.
Quality of work is another way clients assess attorneys. While mistakes happen, after all attorneys are human, bad attorneys miss deadlines, provide incorrect advice, or do other things that could ultimately harm their clients. But on a lesser scale, clients who see typos or grammatical errors will think their attorneys are not detail-oriented. So while their attorney may be average, to a client, that’s not good enough.
Third, clients want an ethical attorney. Someone who won’t put their self-interests over theirs, someone who maintains attorney-client privilege, and someone who bills them honestly. Attorneys who do not uphold these standards or do not appear to hold them risk losing their clients and their reputation. Average attorneys are those who may not completely do illegal things, but they may conduct themselves in a gray area which clients will see as bad.
For instance, in 2017, it was revealed that attorney David Boies was representing Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein while his firm was representing The New York Times. The New York Times was working on a negative expose about the mogul, and Boies allegedly was helping Weinstein squash the bad press. When this news came to light, the New York Times called Boies’ and his firm’s actions a “grave betrayal of trust” and fired them. Boies said that the Times signed a retainer agreement that said his firm did not have to disclose conflicts of interest that did not pertain to the cases that the Times’ had hired them for. While Boies’ may have saved himself with a loophole, the damage was done.
Why is being an average lawyer a bad thing?
As detailed above, doing the bare minimum isn’t acceptable to clients. While they may pay an average attorney one time for average work, they won’t return, they won’t refer business, and maybe worse, they may write a negative review or file an official complaint.
Furthermore, technology such as Legalzoom, a website that gives users the ability to prepare their own simple documents, is making it easy for people to access legal services for cheap. If an attorney is average or worse, a consumer may decide they aren’t worth the price. However, if an attorney does excellent work and makes their clients feel special and protected, then clients will actually be happy to pay that premium amount.
How to be a successful lawyer
To be a better lawyer, you have to not settle for being average or allow people to perceive you as anything but excellent. Winning cases is a barometer of success and something that will bring clients back and get you referrals. But in addition to winning, successful lawyers also provide high-quality customer service.
“A good example of a successful lawyer is attorney Michael Rains,” Harrison Barnes of BCG Attorney Search stated. “The Pleasant Hill lawyer has a reputation of representing police officers and winning cases on their behalf. Rains is a case example of lawyers who have made a mark in the legal profession and have rose from the ordinary stereotypical lawyer to reputable and ethical legal practitioner… As such, to maintain such credit and rank as a lawyer is important in the modern corporate scene and the legal profession background. A lawyer like Michael Rains is proud, articulate, and popular.”
To be a successful lawyer, there are a few things you can do:
Master your practice: Clients want someone who knows their practice inside and out, who exhibits a passion for the law. For lawyers who want to be the top in their field, they should choose a practice that they enjoy and will thus put in the hours needed to become an expert.
“I chose practice areas that I find intellectually stimulating and that I truly love to study and think about each day,” attorney Brad Frazer stated on Law Crossing. “I read articles about copyright law for fun! It's trite, but it's true: do what you love and the money (and success) will follow.”
Be choosey with your clients: When building business, you may want to take on whoever wants to pay, but the American Bar Association warns that you should be pickier when choosing clients. This will not only affect the quality of your work but your reputation.
“We all know the experience of having a client or a case that we wish we had never taken. The best way to avoid this is to give more thought to the client and case at the beginning, before you accept representation,” The American Bar Association stated. “For example, if a prospective client comes to you and one of the first things he or she does is trash his or her prior lawyers, worse yet, multiple sets of prior lawyers, this should be a bright red flag. Odds are the client will eventually turn on you as well. Similarly, the client that thinks he or she is a lawyer, but is not, is generally trouble. There are all sorts of warning signs for what is likely to be a problem client.”
Once you accept a client, understand their business and needs so that you can better serve them.
Treat everyone you meet with respect: Building a positive reputation means building positive relationships. Everyone you meet, from paralegals to court professionals, should be treated with respect. You never know when that connection will help you.
"Keep the secretaries on your side, treat everyone as an equal, and don't think because you've got a law degree that you are somehow better than anyone else. You need to keep a level head," Rebecca Bowley, a paralegal, told The Guardian.
Additionally, treat clients with respect. They may not understand exactly the legal terms you are explaining, but they do know and will remember how you make them feel.
“First and foremost, successful lawyers are the ones who understand the importance of ensuring that clients are treated with the highest levels of professionalism and courtesy. A client may not be able to discern a well-drafted contract from a sloppily compiled one, but they can certainly identify arrogance, bad manners, a lack of responsiveness, unclear or confusing advice, missed deadlines, and bills which are higher than expected,” Kevin Wheeler wrote on Lexis Nexis.
Improve your communication skills: Reading and writing is a constant for an attorney, and being able to speak clearly with others is also imperative, even for those who never see a courtroom. To be excellent, a lawyer should not only craft persuasive arguments, but make sure that they are error-free.
“Nothing reveals a poor attorney more than having a lack of attention to detail. Whether it is formatting errors, spelling errors, missing arguments –you name it—the worst attorney always has a problem with details,” Barnes said. “Details are hugely important in the legal arena. If an attorney cannot pay attention to details, then they can get ripped up by the other side. Attorneys love pointing out the mistakes that other attorneys make. If you are working with a truly exceptional attorney, you will find they rarely miss important details.”
But besides the legal documents a lawyer reviews and creates, clients want someone who is able to explain their cases clearly and who gives them regular updates. Clients also want someone who responds quickly and never ignores emails or calls.
“Depending on the area of law you pursue, value-conscious clients may expect you to be accessible around the clock,” The Balance stated. “This is particularly true in the case of criminal law. Smartphones allow legal professionals to stay connected 24/7, so the job doesn't end for many lawyers when they physically leave the courtroom or their offices at the end of the day.”
Never stop learning: Laws and societal norms are constantly changing, so for an attorney to be excellent, he or should must never stop learning. While lawyers have a minimum continuing education requirement to keep their license, they should go above and beyond their competitors. This includes attending seminars, reading legal journals, or watching the news. Like Frazer said above, if you pick a practice area you enjoy, you will consume all the knowledge you can about the area.
Thanks to the internet and an overabundance of attorneys, clients have the ability to pick and choose who to hire for legal services. Thus, average attorneys no longer cut it, and they are lumped in with bad ones. To avoid being average, attorneys must provide quality customer service, do excellent work, and act ethically to succeed. All in all, clients are looking to hire someone who treats them respectfully and makes their lives easier.
“Clients are conditioned to judge service on the quality on how well their lawyer managed to affect the output,” Jon Whittle wrote on Lexis Nexis. “Did the house get bought on time? Was the litigation concluded in a way that made the client happy? Did the employment dispute get resolved in a way that protected the client from further claims? Clients don’t value the quality of the legal input – they take this for granted (this is what a lawyer is paid to provide). Clients value resolution and moving on.”
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