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Do You Know What Your Clients Really Want?

The older I get the more interest I have in exploring what motivates people. I want to know why someone gathered all the possessions they did verses simply being shown their vast collection of stuff.  I share this because I believe that failing to consider the thought processes and motivations that are driving client decisions and actions can be a tremendous mistake in the practice of law. For clients, the best outcome isn’t always about maximizing the amount of money they’ll receive or minimizing the amount of money they’ll have to pay. Attorneys who fail to understand this are not always fully meeting the needs of their clients and that could be a problem. 

I first learned this lesson years ago when I was involved in the sale of a pristine piece of real estate on the northwest border of Glacier National Park. I approached the transaction as so many would, let’s get the best offer on the table and make this happen. It took me a little while to realize that the seller’s concern wasn’t in how much money he’d make. While price was a factor, the seller’s true concern was in finding someone who would emotionally invest in maintaining the property just as he had done. The seller had worked hard to make the property something special and he didn’t want to see his efforts go to waste. In short, the right buyer was more important than the right amount of cash. Once I understood that, the sale moved forward rather quickly. 

I was also involved in mediation some time ago where both sides were far apart on the dollar figure. Yeah, I know.  We’ve all been there. Well, instead of playing the numbers game, I decided to take a step back and consider other options. My first step was to finally start to listen. My hope was to try and identify what the driving motivations were for both parties. Eventually we were able to reach resolution when I finally realized that what the plaintiff really wanted was an apology. That was it. The plaintiff simply wanted the perceived wrong to be acknowledged and her position validated. An apology would allow her to get past what had happened in a way that no amount of money, in and of itself, was ever going to allow her to do. An apology was delivered shortly thereafter and the matter was settled with minimal outlay.

These experiences were important to me because they challenged my assumptions about how things are supposed to be. While I knew how to be a lawyer, I was coming to realize that I was not always remembering that people were involved and that was unfortunate. In other matters resolution might have happened earlier or had better outcomes had I done as shared above and taken the time to try to understand the motivations behind the decisions and actions that parties were making. 

So what’s the point? Attorney/client relationships are just that, relationships. This is true whether the client is an individual or a corporation. You should know and understand the motivations of your clients. If you don’t, you are running with assumptions and that’s taking unnecessary risks. In addition, the non-verbal message that is being sent with the lack of understanding is this; while you are interested in handling your clients’ legal work you aren’t really interested in them. Remember, investment in the attorney/client relationship is a two-way street. Your work on any given matter may, in fact, be exemplary but you also may never know about the referrals and/or other work that went elsewhere solely due to your lack of investment in understanding the whys behind client decisions. 

Here's an idea. Take the time to try to determine the degree to which a client is investing in the attorney/client relationship with you. I suspect that this will prove to be a good barometer as to how well you are investing in them. This is worth some thought. From a risk management perspective, I see the effort placed into getting to know your clients as one of the most, if not the most important, risk management effort that can be undertaken because this is what helps to build trust, and in the practice of law, trust is a good thing.

Mark Bassingthwaighte is a Risk Manager for ALPS (Attorneys Liability Protection Society) and has consulted for over 1,000 law firms both large and small. His knowledge and expertise in risk management is highly respected around the country. Mark is a sought after speaker, lecturer, and panelist. He can be reached at

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