What Clients Want

Mike Whelan
Chief Community Officer

In previous chapters we’ve looked inward for ways to improve our True Counselor method; in this and following chapters, we’ll turn our attention to the people we serve.

We’ll begin with clients.


Systemic Injustice

During law school, I worked in the Children’s Rights Clinic. We represented children who’d been removed from their homes by the state. In every case, we focused deeply on the child’s needs. In retrospect, we may have focused too much.

I remember one day walking into the clinic to find my advisor crying. When I asked what was wrong, she pointed to a new client list. Singling out one child’s name, she said, “I represented her mom when she was a child and I worked in this clinic.” She explained how, despite her effective work in a fifteen-year-old case, systemic issues led to generational, substantive injustice.

That day I realized that clients live in a bigger picture. As Professor Ackoff artfully put it, a problem is to reality what an atom is to a table. People experience tables not atoms.

If I wanted to help clients succeed and experience justice, I needed to look beyond the transactional relationship I’d learned about in law school. I’d have to see the bigger picture.

Clients voice frustration with small-picture lawyers in imprecise ways. From litigation clients, you might hear “My lawyer doesn’t fight for me.” From transaction clients, you might hear “My lawyer doesn’t understand my business.”

However they express it, clients are signaling their need for True Counselors who think beyond the transaction.

In this chapter, we’ll discuss the implications of these client expectations and start to lay the groundwork of a client-centered knowledge firm.


Counseling for the Big Picture

To understand the value of the True Counselor in a transactions context, let’s return to Professor Tony Luppino’s report to the Kauffman Foundation.

Here’s his full quote about the value of such lawyers:

“Finally, we have the true counselors—the lawyers who know the law, but have also developed significant business savvy and creativity, and who use their training in seeing all sides of an argument to become extremely valuable sounding boards for their clients, sometimes participating in the design and engineering, and often at least quarterbacking, the negotiation of their key transactions.”

Tony’s summary gets to the larger question of the value that transactional lawyers offer. While Ray Worthy Campbell argues in The End of Law Schools that hyper-specialization makes lawyers easily replaced by consultants, Steven L Schwarcz argues that hyper-generalization has the same effect. At the poles, lawyers get awfully lonely.

The balance seems to be found in, well, balance.

Look at Luppino’s three categories of attorney: the “No” Lawyer, the Solutions Lawyer, and the True Counselor. When I first read his report, I assumed he was describing three different types of lawyers. But when I think of it from the client’s perspective, I believe that the ideal lawyer would shift seamlessly between all three functions.

Clients, depending on the moment, need

  1. An answer,
  2. A solution, or
  3. Counsel.

While law schools are great at preparing us to give answers and imagine solutions, providing counsel requires lawyers who see the big picture.


Counseling for Innovation

Why do we struggle so much with the big picture? It’s not just corporations and the law firms that represent them—every level of our institutions seems to get lost in the trees, never seeing the forest. In his final major interview, author Kurt Vonnegut went so far as to suggest that governments should have a cabinet member called the “Secretary of the Future.

“[T]here are no plans at all for my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren,” he lamented, worried about the environment and how long earth could sustain human life.

Writing about the future gave Vonnegut a longer view. He lived in “what ifs,” but many companies have heeded his warning and now integrate the big picture into their strategic planning. For you to succeed as a client’s True Counselor, you’ll also need to broaden your perspective.

In an interview with NPR’s Marketplace, George Serafim of the Harvard Business School described efforts made by future-focused businesses. He explained that sustainability goes beyond ecology. “It encompasses lots of environmental issues, but also lots of social issues like product quality and safety, workplace practices and robust supply chains, and governance factors as well.”

Several businesses have even created a C-suite role for this kind of big picture thinking: the Chief Sustainability Officer.

Their function, Serafim explained, is to push the company past the immediate view. He described three stages in which these “secretaries of the future” operate:

  1. Compliance: These big picture thinkers start by ensuring that companies use best and legal practice;
  2. Efficiency: Once companies grasp best practices, they spend the majority of their business life trying to squeeze more results out of fewer inputs; and
  3. Innovation: Although most companies get stuck in efficiency, the elite companies reach a point in which they focus on sustainable assets. That gives them a long-term competitive advantage.

This all sounds quite esoteric, but most companies do not have a “secretary of the future.” The C-suite sustainability office is rare, and clients will look to you as an advisor who can provide context.

This function is rooted in a few principles we’ve covered in this chapter:

  • Clients are complex people living in complex situations;
  • Their needs require lawyers that know when to say no and when to provide solutions, always rooted in a sound view of the big picture; and
  • Unless we acquire True Counselor skills, our clients can never reach the innovation stage of their businesses.

As Professor Luppino’s taxonomy—“No” Lawyer, Solutions Lawyer, and True Counselor—made clear, clients expect us to provide all three perspectives. Sometimes we must push them to compliance, sometimes to efficiency, and hopefully to innovation.

This requires seeing beyond the transaction. But that is the advisor’s burden.


Read the next article in the series:
The Advisor’s Burden

All articles in the series:
The Rise of the Modern Knowledge Practitioner

  1. The Cheapening of Knowledge
  2. Your Latest Transaction
  3. The Legal Knowledge Business
  4. Knowledge Management
  5. Making Experts Out of Employees
  6. What Clients Want
  7. The Advisor’s Burden
  8. The Modern Knowledge Firm


Tags: The Rise of the Modern Knowledge Practitioner


Mike Whelan
Chief Community Officer

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