Client Relationships in the Age of the Mouse-Click

 Seeing the Big Picture: Building Client Relationships in the Age of the Mouse-Click

(Originally published in Business Law Today)


In an era of electronic auctions, expert software, and online databases, are traditional, face-to-face client relationships going the way of quill pens and parchment paper? To be sure, they are under assault from many quarters. With universal access to information, expertise is becoming automated and reduced to a commodity. In many markets, clients can learn virtually everything about you and your services at the click of a mouse, and in some cases, dump you as a provider with yet another click. Auditing once required extensive client contact and was considered a highly sophisticated service. Now, it is largely computer-based, and corporations have little compunction about switching accounting firms—an event that used to be as rare as a solar eclipse. Corporate and individual clients have more choices than ever before and they are demanding increased value-added from the lawyers, accountants, and bankers they use.

Are sophisticated legal and other professional services immune from the incursion of the Web and related digital media? Hardly. The signs of change are already apparent: In fields as diverse as law, accounting, consulting, banking, and technology services, there is significant consolidation occurring, with new mergers being announced almost monthly. What used to be the “Big 8” accounting firms are now the “Big 5.” Law firms, which historically enjoyed long-term retainer relationships with their clients, are being asked to bid competitively for work, and the 1990s saw an unprecedented number of law firm bankruptcies and mergers. Many companies are now conducting frequent, tough reviews of the outside professionals they use, forcing incumbents continually to justify their relationship.

A cautionary tale can be seen in the impact that the English Industrial Revolution had on the affluent master craftsmen of the 19th century. Their livelihoods were decimated as their work was replaced by cheap labor and factory automation. Those who survived were the artists whose craftsmanship transcended the mere fabrication of leather, cloth, and iron.

From Knowledge Worker to Wisdom Worker

How can lawyers navigate this sea change? Unfortunately, the conventional wisdom about professional success—“find a specialty, do good work, and the rest will follow” —is now woefully inadequate. Consider, for example, the fact that over 50 percent of corporate clients who switch suppliers say they were “satisfied” with them before switching!

A new model for professional achievement is needed in our new economy, and it requires discarding many of our traditional notions about how to succeed. The first step is to move beyond the “expert” mentality that is so prevalent in the legal profession and in our culture at large. In professional service firms and corporations alike we are pushed to specialize throughout our careers. At large law firms, new associates are rapidly tracked into sub-specialties within a specialty—high yield, private equity, or securitization, for example. While there is great benefit in developing a deep expertise—indeed, a distinctive professional competency is absolutely essential—this specialization will eventually become a liability if you don’t also acquire generalist knowledge and develop big-picture thinking skills and intellectual breadth.

Interestingly, by reaching back 500 years in history we can find a lawyer who exemplified the qualities required to thrive in our 21st century markets. Thomas More, who was born in 1478 in London, was one of the most brilliant legal minds of his age. He rose rapidly through the English judicial system, eventually becoming a member of the powerful Council of the Star Chamber as well as King Henry VIII’s chief adviser. Once, while on a diplomatic mission to Holland for the English Crown, he was challenged to a duel of legal wits by his Dutch counterparts. The unfathomable question he put forth in Latin, “Can cattle captured in withernam be irrepleviable?” so confounded his opponents that they were reportedly speechless.

More was, however, far more than just a legal expert. “Live as if you are to die tomorrow, study as if you are to live forever,” More wrote, and although he continued his legal studies throughout his career, he systematically added breadth to his depth. He studied literature and history, and traveled widely. Fluent in four languages (English court proceeding were conducted in French during this time), More also wrote extensively, authoring Utopia, a book still widely read today. He honed his administrative skills in a variety of settings, and when King Henry gave him the Duchy of Lancaster to manage, he threw himself into the role with enormous energy. More, a devout and deeply religious Catholic, also had principles he would not compromise. Devoted to his client but fiercely independent to the end, More refused to endorse King Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his break with the Catholic Church, even though it cost him his life.

More was, in essence, a broad-gauge, trusted, independent adviser to his client—precisely the type of lawyer who can best defend against the “mouse-click.” To assume this role today, however—to move from legal expert to client adviser, to client navigator—lawyers going to have to rethink how they approach their careers and their clients.

During four years of research into the roots of professional effectiveness, we conducted a large number of interviews with leading CEOs and corporate executives about what they look for in the professionals—lawyers, bankers, consultants, and others—that they use for services and advice. It became clear that the business adviser with technical depth is vastly more valuable than a technical specialist. If you want to stand out, in other words, it’s not good enough to be an “expert” who practices law on a transaction basis. You need to evolve from a knowledge worker to a wisdom worker who provides insight, ideas, and big-picture thinking in the context of a long-term relationship.

The expert mindset, which many attorneys have, is very different than an adviser mindset. “An expert,” wrote President Harry Truman, “is a person who is afraid to learn anything new because then he wouldn’t be an expert anymore.” Experts focus on providing answers, doing analysis, and specializing more and more during their careers. Broad-gauge professionals who function as advisers, in contrast, ask great questions, develop knowledge breadth as well as depth, demonstrate synthesis in addition to analysis, and listen rather than just tell.

Overcoming the expert mindset is just the beginning. There are, in addition, a number of personal and intellectual qualities that lawyers need to cultivate in order to be seen as extraordinary in today’s marketplace, in order to function as trusted advisers who add enormous value in their relationships. In Clients for Life: How Great Professionals Develop Breakthrough Relationships, we set out seven specific attributes that characterize extraordinary professionals who develop valued-added, enduring client relationships. These include selfless independence, empathy, knowledge depth and breadth (becoming a “deep generalist”), synthesis or big-picture thinking, judgment, conviction, and the facility to build trust. While all of these attributes are essential, there are three which merit particular attention: developing selfless independence; cultivating powers of synthesis; and creating deep, abiding trust.

Developing Selfless Independence

Thomas More exemplified heroic selfless independence. He was completely devoted to his client, King Henry VIII, but also exercised complete independence from him—he had a set of principles and values that he would not compromise. Fortunately, modern professionals don’t have to die in the exercise of their independence, although they do have to be prepared to suffer short-term financial losses and temporary career setbacks.

One corporate executive told us, “I divide the professionals I use into two groups: those who will do anything I say, and those who are independent.” Selflessness, unaccompanied by independence, makes you a lackey—you become willing to do whatever the client asks and agree with whatever he says. Great professionals do everything in their power to make their clients and business partners successful, but they also speak their minds and won’t compromise their integrity and beliefs. Like Thomas More, they know where to draw the line.

Lawyers who want to be great client advisers have to exercise three distinct types of independence:

  • Intellectual independence. Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, who has represented more than his share of high-profile individuals, is a fierce advocate for his clients. He also has a well-articulated philosophy about independence and the need to be perceived by one’s client as an equal. He says, quite bluntly, “The professional who is truly independent from his client is something you rarely see nowadays. My focus is on winning the case, not trying to keep the client. Some advisers surround their clients, telling them exactly what they want to hear—I just won’t do that. I told Leona Helmsley, for example, that if she continued to be mean and cruel towards her employees, they would of course continue to turn against her. She fired me.” (Helmsley, a famous hotel heiress who was notoriously tough on her staff, was charged with tax evasion and other crimes, and eventually served time in jail).
  • Emotional independence. If you are overly attached to the outcome of a particular sale or deal or have to be “needed” by your clients, you relinquish your independence. Strong professionals develop levels of self-esteem and self-confidence that enable them to be independent of the good (or bad) opinions of others, including their clients and bosses.
  • Financial independence. Great professionals cultivate a mindset of independent wealth. The best advisers are highly paid, but they act as though they are not being paid and don’t really need the money. If you are feeling financially needy and allow this need to intrude on your intellectual and emotional independence, you’re lost. Someone once counseled, “Never act hungry—it makes people want to stop on the street and kick you.” Ironically, the mindset of independent wealth—having a certain indifference towards money—usually results in great financial success if it is accompanied by a passion for your work.

Cultivating Powers of Synthesis

Lawyers who act as experts focus on analysis—they are trained to deconstruct a legal problem and then examine all the individual pieces. Advisers also are good at analysis, but they excel at synthesis, a thinking process that identifies patterns, simplifies and frames the most critical issues, creates a new idea or develops new conclusions from old data. Analysis is important but rapidly becoming a commodity, whereas good synthesis is worth its weight in gold. One CEO remarked to us, “The top partners at law firms, and the lawyers who get hired by corporations and moved into top management, they are the ones who see well beyond the legal issues. They tend to be strategic, big-picture thinkers who understand the business issues.”

What are the ingredients of a good synthesis? First, the foundations have to be in place: a clear sense of the strategic issues, a view of the whole picture, and an overriding purpose. When Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince, for example—which is in essence a brilliant synthesis of the characteristics and strategies of successful leaders—he had an overarching goal in mind: to bring stability and unity to an Italian peninsula fraught with endless fighting. Similarly, Marty Lipton’s development of the poison pill defense in the 1980s was based on one overriding objective: to give companies a choice to remain independent in the face of junk-bond financed takeover bids.

Establishing these foundations by framing the critical issues in each situation gives an edge to any lawyer. Eric Silverman, who heads the Global Project Finance group at the New York law firm of Milbank, Tweed, describes how very basic big picture thinking can vastly increase the impact you have on clients and improve the tenor of your relationships with them. He tells us:

A major energy company struggled for a year, without success, to put together a multibillion-dollar financing package. The company finally got a large bank to come in and support the deal, guaranteeing its success. This bank—a latecomer to the whole process—insisted that we come in as attorneys to review the entire project. The energy company itself, the other financial partners, and their legal advisors were adamantly against our involvement, however, and they aggressively tried to keep us out. The original banks in the deal were afraid we would essentially re-do all of the legal due diligence that had already been painstakingly undertaken and delay the project by months.

So when my firm arrived, the environment was hostile—at best we’d be paid for our time and ushered out as soon as possible. Instead of bringing in a cast of thousands and reviewing every single aspect of the deal, however, we used a very small staff. We rapidly isolated the top five or six legal issues—out of hundreds—that we felt were truly strategic, and brought these to the consortium management. They were delighted: we weren’t milking the situation and calling everything into question. The points we chose to review and analyze were ones they had struggled with for a year, so everyone was motivated to resolve them. The main client ended up calling us back repeatedly to assist with other, unrelated deals. Instead of a one-off transaction, this has become a very long-term relationship.

The second ingredient of good synthesis involves the creative use of specific tools and techniques: frameworks that simplify and clarify the issues, analogies that transfer ideas from one field to another, patterns and commonalities that hint at new constructs, and an understanding of multiple perspectives. Charles Merrill, for example, the founder of Merrill Lynch, reconceptualized the stockbroking business in the 1930s by “borrowing” mass merchandising concepts from newly emerging chain stores of the time such as J. G. McCrory.

Good big-picture thinking, finally, often results from certain practices or habits of mind that enhance your ability to think deeply and creatively. These include suspending your judgment; taking time to reflect; and engaging in integrated thinking that uses both the right (creative) and left (analytical) sides of your brain. It may be no accident that Isaac Newton performed what is considered to be one of the most prodigious acts of synthesis in scientific history—the development of his laws of motion—while tucked away in an isolated, remote rural cottage as the plague swept through Cambridge.

History shows that the liberal arts perspective is a powerful catalyst for good synthesis. The most accomplished and inventive figures of the Italian Renaissance, for example, from Niccolò Machiavelli to Leonardo da Vinci, were consummate liberal arts scholars, equally at home with art, science, mathematics, philosophy, history, and literature. Rajat Gupta, the worldwide managing director of the leading consulting firm McKinsey & Company, sums up the practical advantages of a broad, multi-disciplinary perspective when he says, “Some of our best people are those who studied literature or the classics, and who later received business training. These people tend to understand the array of forces at work in organizations, and they approach decisions in a very well-rounded way.”

Building Trust

When another politician once asked President Franklin Roosevelt why he was so loyal to one of his key advisers, Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt replied sternly: “Someday you may well be sitting here where I am now as president of the United States. And when you are, you’ll be looking at that door over there and knowing that practically everybody who walks through it wants something out of you. You’ll learn what a lonely job this is and discover the need for somebody like Harry Hopkins who asks for nothing except to serve you.” Hopkins’s great strength was his ability to engender trust—not just with Roosevelt but with other world leaders like Churchill and Stalin. Incorruptible, discreet, and always reliable, Hopkins never let Roosevelt down.

The trust that Roosevelt reposed in his adviser, however, is all too rare today—America, unfortunately, is slowly becoming a low-trust society. The confidence we have in a variety of figures—politicians, doctors, lawyers, stockbrokers, corporate executives, journalists, and others—is at a low ebb. Furthermore, as the sellers of products and services compete ever more aggressively for our limited attention and “share of mind,” their claims have become increasingly spurious and unbelievable, creating doubt rather than confidence.

Great professionals stand out in this sea of untrustworthiness by becoming a “trusted brand” to their colleagues and clients. They consistently demonstrate integrity, reliability, and discretion on both a professional and personal level. They follow a set of very basic principles that help reinforce others’ trust in them. Here are several of the most important ones:

  • Carefully make promises. The worst kind of professional is someone who constantly promises things and never delivers. This credibility gap, once established, is almost insuperable. Lewis Smedes, an ordained minister, beautifully sums up the meaning of a promise in a sermon entitled “The Power of Promises”: “When a person makes a promise, he stretches himself out into circumstances that no one can control and controls at least one thing: he will be there no matter what the circumstances turn out to be.”
  • Consider every commitment a major one. At Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, legendary chief of surgery Dr. William Silen tells his residents, “I don’t know what the difference is between ‘major’ and ‘minor’ surgery. I just know that no one performs ‘minor’ surgery on me!” In a similar vein, there is no such thing as a minor commitment—each one, large or small, should be treated with the same seriousness.
  • Know what you stand for. You need to be clear about your guiding values and beliefs, and willing to draw the line in questionable situations. One well known lawyer told us the story of how, after a major financial deal was closed, he refused to attend a celebratory dinner at a men’s-only private club. Non-discrimination was one of his core values, and he had decided not to patronize clubs or restaurants that discriminated against women or minorities. Since there was no other restaurant in the suburb where the dinner was supposed to be held, he and his colleagues ate at McDonalds!
  • Be willing to risk loss for your principles. The true test of integrity is whether you’re willing suffer loss, like Thomas More, by sticking to your principles. It doesn’t take integrity, for example, to turn down a client who you know will be unprofitable—there’s no cost to your action. Refusing a highly lucrative engagement for ethical reasons, however, does demonstrate integrity.

In his essay “On Lying,” the fifth-century religious leader St. Augustine wrote, “When regard for the truth has been broken down or even slightly weakened, all things will remain doubtful.” In this low-trust world, you need to set especially high standards of conduct for yourself and tirelessly develop your reputation for integrity and honesty.

As the new economy rolls over us like a tsunami, lawyers can no longer afford to keep themselves afloat by claiming to be “experts” in a particular aspect of law. Information and expertise are being stripped away from the professionals who used to deliver them and made separately accessible through a variety of new, digitally-based channels and media that include the Worldwide Web and expert software. As this trend accelerates, even lawyers will be at risk of becoming tradeable commodities, competing, like the craftsmen of nineteenth-century England, with cheaper, faster alternatives. To succeed today, you need offer your clients a renewed richness of thinking—insight and judgment, not simply expertise—as well as a trusted personal and professional relationship. These are things that cannot possibly be substituted by the anonymous click of a mouse.

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