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Killing clients with complexity – be sure to recognise and address it

Posted in Emotional Intelligence, Leadership, Legal Profession, Partners, Personal Effectiveness, Uncategorized

In talking about client relations lawyers like to talk about the importance of using simple English, killing clients with kindness and generally keeping things simple for clients. It seems years of training and our natural lawyerly DNA inhibits this. So, instead, we are killing clients with complexity and bloody mindedness. Clients use this as yet another reason (did they need another?) to try to get their ‘legal’ work done elsewhere (i.e. outside the legal profession), sometimes at all costs.

Yes, that complicated mess is the array of plugs and wires for an office building! Something like the complex layers of mush some lawyers seem to be making of clients’ favourite projects! (Photo Credit: Bitterjug via Compfight cc)

This was brought home to me twice in the last month in conversations with clients, both interestingly enough experienced lawyers themselves.

The first client, let’s call her Sue, heads up a very sizable charity and has recently been involved in some very large commercial transactions worth millions of dollars. As most will know many charities have been forced to fend for themselves nowadays and so engage actively in supportive commercial activities. Inevitably Sue had to engage lawyers. Her legal bill with her main firm amounted to millions of dollars per annum.

(graphic: courtesy of www.dilbert.com)

Being an experienced ex-corporate lawyer of a leading firm herself, Sue thought she knew how to run transactions and lawyers. That didn’t stop her lawyers denouncing her views in a meeting attended by many other parties to the transaction and then adding layers of complexity to an already challenging deal. Sue was astounded by their behaviour, but found the most irritating feature of their conduct was how her own senior lawyer became entrenched in his views on some issues. As Sue said to me:

at times I felt I had to dynamite him out of his fixed positions on things. Frustratingly, it became clear to me the real issue was not a legal issue at all, but that he didn’t really understand our industry. His insecurity caused him to create blockages for us and the deal. Unfortunately at the heart of it too was the unfortunate arrogance one too often finds in experienced members of our profession. This time I experienced it all from a client’s perspective”

This dragged things out while Sue felt his inflexibility was largely due to his lack of understanding of the nuances of social enterprises and how they engage in commercial matters.

The second client, Steve, is a practising corporate lawyer and also chair and director of various corporate entities, highly regarded in business and legal circles. One entity of which he is chair has been engaged in some critical project work involving hundreds of millions of dollars, all  subject to tight performance and delivery deadlines – again here the lawyers, one of which was a national top 4 firm, proved exasperating to deal with. In his words:

“At times there were twelve lawyers in a room with us trying to reach agreement. It seemed to me that the CEOs and Chairs of the various parties quite quickly reached agreement but we then had to hand it on to the lawyers to document. This is where the issues arose. In some cases it took up to 3 months – what seemed to happen each time was the lawyers then felt it necessary to re-negotiate everything. Of course, each time it had to come back to us to settle and agree once again. In the meantime legal fees blew out horribly. The worst experience of all this was the very entrenched positions the lawyers each took. In one case it took us six meetings to negotiate back to where we had started from.”

He couldn’t believe the unnecessary layers of complexity they added to the transaction with what appeared to be little consideration for the commercial realities of the matter, or the deadlines.

Obviously there are always two sides to these stories and no doubt the lawyers would tell one they were only trying to protect everyone’s best interests.  I do think however we as lawyers don’t spend enough or any time thinking about how we may be coming across to clients in this area. We tend always to look at things from our perspective and perhaps should be much more sensitive to how clients are feeling.

The two examples I quote from above are real examples of actual events – in both cases the clients are experienced corporate/commercial lawyers with over twenty years experience in their own rights. They have certainly had their eyes opened at the way their colleagues can behave at times. I sent the Dilbert strip to them both after hearing these stories.

Why are these matters difficult to deal with in practice and therefore go unaddressed?

  • as it is often the firm’s top corporate deal maker lawyers who are involved in such transactions – one assumes they will instinctively get the balance right and not be so obstructive and difficult;
  • they will often feel they are bullet-proof and confidently intimate they know where to draw the line;
  • due to the stature of the lawyers involved, clients will sometimes be reluctant to say anything bad about them in the knowledge that annoyed as they are, they may have cause to use them or work with them again in future and want to maintain the ‘relationship’;
  • for these reasons one never imagines the issues to  ‘be that bad’;
  • as many of these conversations happen behind closed doors, with no-one else from the firm present, it is hard to gauge what was said or actually took place or even know there is an issue. Where issues do arise it is hard to get to the bottom of them.
What should and can law firm leaders do about this?
  • this issue should be raised at partner discussion meetings. Ideally examples (from clients and outside the firm) should be provided;
  • someone, other than the partner concerned in the matter, and preferably outside the firm, should debrief all key clients during or after all key transactions;
  • obviously,  all key clients of the firm should be interviewed.
  • both of the last sets of meetings should be given priority and taken very seriously and the results should be fed into the partner review process;
  • this topic must be a topic at partner reviews and feedback meetings;
  • this should also be dealt with as part of the firm’s in-house training and coaching program for all firm lawyers.

Any similar experiences to share? It would be good to hear from you.

Sean Larkan, Principal, Edge International