Imagine you’re an alien from a distant star. After a forceful takeover, you go to the local grocer for a bite and end up in the cereal aisle. You stare at all of the new options for a long, long time. How the heck do you choose which cereal box to take home?

In short, you guess. (And this, by the way, is how most people pick their lawyer. More on that later.)

Choosing Between Unknowns

I often use the alien-in-the-cereal-aisle analogy to explain a new legal buyer’s experience. It comes from Youngme Moon’s book Different.

Moon mapped out how you and I buy cereal – an elaborate process of narrowing by flavor and grain and cartoon character – and contrasted it to the alien’s experience.

The hungry alien lacks necessary context for the elaborate analysis you and I do. The options are meaningless. When we have a completely new experience, we pull whatever is off the shelf and hope it works out.

And if Mr. Alien is married, he then goes home and manufactures some nuanced justification when his wife asks why he chose that particular box. He had no expectations for the cereal because he had no context, so he makes them up as he goes.

This, unfortunately, is how most clients choose you. (I’m speaking here of consumer-level buyers, though I’ve been assured by Casey Flaherty that experienced legal buyers still haven’t figured out how to measure what we do, either. But I still blame the lawyer in that situation.)

Invented Expectations

How many times have you dealt with a prospective legal client who apparently just discovered the Interwebs? The one who likes to unload everything he or she learned after a Google search on your area of law?

The truth is, that prospective client likely has no idea how to measure your services and is brain dumping to feel smart and in control. Just like Mr. Alien justifying his breakfast options to his wife. Without expectations informed by repeated transactions, the new legal buyer is forced to make up expectations drawn from other experiences.

Law and Order, a recent Amazon purchase, a rumor read online… however your new client arrives at it, your services are being judged based on experiences you don’t control.

So, when I read last week that clients expect a lawyer response within minutes of contacting a firm, I was neither surprised nor persuaded.

What Clients Want

The comment, as reported by Hanna Kaufman, came from Clio CEO Jack Newton’s Legal Hack Chicago presentation during ABA TECHSHOW. Allowing that Jack’s comments probably had more to them (even at 280 characters, Twitter doesn’t allow for nuance), it got me thinking: 

Do prospective or current clients expect a lawyer to respond within minutes? If they do expect it, should we care? How do we operate in that world?

I immediately started thinking of the “how.” Assuming they expect that kind of response time from an attorney, how would I deliver it? I’d have to have only one client, or at least very few, and that client would have to accept off-the-cuff answers.

My billing model would have to factor in constant availability, since that would be a defining element of my business. I’d have to charge every time someone called me and asked a question.

Billing by time for shallow answers given quickly. Is that what clients want?

1. Maybe. 2. They’re wrong if they do.

They Really Want That?

When a prospective client comes to me, she has likely never hired an attorney before. She has no context, so she does some things to control the situation.

She talks to her mom or friend or the spouse she’s divorcing. She does a cursory search online and reads a handful of articles.

Then she fills in the blanks with Amazon, Law and Order, and the customer service training she received at work. Almost none of her expectations come from the legal buying experience because she’s never had one.

So, yes, she may expect you to answer the phone every time she calls. And she’s judging you against that standard, and you should be aware of that. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and you have more control over her expectations than you think.

Use your processes to train prospects about hiring a lawyer. Do this knowing that they may go hire another lawyer. But educate them. Tell them about the process, about the law, and about what they can control. A few will take the advice and run, but you are training aliens from another planet here. Give them some context.

Tell them why you can’t answer the phone all the time. Show them the systems you’ve created to answer the questions they have. Give them what they want when they want it, but only if you can still maintain your expert role. If they still want you to be that responsive…

You Still Shouldn’t Do It

I’ve be re-reading the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown. I’ll summarize the book with the same words McKeown uses:

Less, but better.

The big argument in Essentialism is that you shouldn’t do everything, and that different parts of your work yield different results. That may seem obvious to you, but think about how much of your work is truly essential, your best work. If you’re like most attorneys, it’s a small portion.

Some of that comes from the predominant billing model (by the hour) which incentivizes work not focused on results. But we also don’t say no.

McKeown pointed to Derek Sivers’ famous mantra, “It’s hell yeah or it’s no,” to help filter your options. Significantly, Sivers uses that mantra to choose between good options. It’d be too easy to identify the dumb work you do in a day and push that off. You probably haven’t done that yet, which is it’s own problem, but what I’m encouraging you to do is to say no to good work.

Specifically, I’m encouraging you to say no to taking immediate calls from clients. And it’s because you know better.

What Clients Need

This advice seems really incongruous with what I normally advise about service. Yes, we are terrible at keeping clients in the loop and at responding quickly to prospects. And, yes, that’s bad.

But you have to create systems for easy communication, rather than relying on your own ability to quickly respond.

If you’re a solopreneur attorney, this is obvious. You need to hire the right people to respond quickly. If you’re a freelancer attorney (a distinction I don’t think many of us understand), you can still create quickly responsive systems. Set up a bot on your website that can answer generic questions and point to resources; hire a virtual receptionist service for that human touch; and contract out to people who can have longer conversations with prospects.

Stop training them to bring every problem to you. Most of those problems don’t have legal solutions anyway. You’re not qualified to help with the other stuff, and you’re doing no favors teaching them that they always need you. These people have to learn to own their own drama, not to constantly feed off of your unqualified opinions.

Clients need your best work. Regardless of what they tell you they want, they don’t need the kind of lawyer who answers the phone every time they call and riffs about things outside your area of knowledge. They need an expert, and experts know how to say “no.”

How Do You Train Your Clients?

Review your communication procedures. Come up with creative ways to update your clients and stay in touch with prospects. Build the kind of content prospects and clients don’t get from anyone else. Be entirely too transparent about your business. They need to know what to expect.

None of that requires you picking up a phone. Stop doing that, and focus on your best work. That’s what your client needs.