Today, I received a thank you note from a client whose case I just successfully closed. The case resulted in a negotiated plea to probation. The case had its ups and downs, and the result was quite great. The gratitude was genuine and the praise was effusive. And, as I sit to write this post, I couldn’t quote a single word of it. The note is back at my office, and I am writing this post on my laptop at home. I can remember a negative word from a difficult client spoken weeks ago verbatim. Many of my clients are happy with what I have done for them. Many write thank-you notes or express their gratitude during and after cases, sometimes in spite of the outcome. Yet, the negative minority speak the words that resonate the most. I read two articles lately that speak to the vocal and very small minority of clients whom you cannot please and why things go bad in the first place.
Enter Merlin Mann
Merlin Mann’s blog post at his blog, 43 Folders, is written in the form of a parable set in a sandwich shop. In the story, a man enters the restaurant just at the beginning of the lunch rush. A customer comes in who is unwilling to commit to the idea of buying a sandwich. Yet, he wants to talk about sandwiches and what the shop might offer. As he is invited to peruse the menu, he demands a deep discount and attempts to engage the owner in further dialogue. Meanwhile, customers who have come to buy sandwiches become uncomfortable and impatient. Eventually, the man behind the counter decides that he has had enough of trying to deal with the customer and invites him to take a seat until he is ready to order. When things still don’t work out, the customers behind him in line escort him outside. Unlike most parables, this one comes with an explanation:
The Sandwich Guy can’t do much for you until you’re hungry enough to really want a sandwich.
Once you’re hungry enough, you still have to pay money for the sandwich. This won’t not come up.
Few people become “a good customer” without understanding both 1 and 2.
Few companies become “a smart business” without understanding 1, 2, and 3.
Basing his business on an understanding of 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 doesn’t make The Sandwich Guy a[n uncaring person]; it makes him a smart business.
He then references a blog on negotiation, which points out: “All […] variables can change except your worth. That can’t change. It’s an undeniable fact beyond subjectivity and beyond the reality-bending rhetoric of your client-to-be. You are worth what you are worth and unless you’re feeling charitable something else has to give.”
Application to Lawyers Representing Clients
The initial client meeting between an appellate lawyer and a potential client is not merely a sales call. After all, you will sometimes have a duty to turn the client away. And you are committing a considerable amount of your time and effort to the case that you may take. It’s important that you have a frank conversation about what lies ahead and the resources it will take for you to do the job properly. Maybe somebody else can do the job more cheaply. Maybe someone else has a different sense of worth. But if you sacrifice your worth or let your client’s willingness or ability to pay you substantiall less than the representation is worth, then your decision impacts you, your client, and those who are standing in line behind the client.
Enter Seth Godin
According to him, there are a vocal 2% of your customers who will protest any change you make in your practice or any innovation:
If you have fans or followers or customers, no matter what you do, you’ll annoy or disappoint two percent of them. And you’ll probably hear a lot more from the unhappy 2% than from the delighted 98. It seems as though there are only two ways to deal with this: Stop innovating, just stagnate. Or go ahead and delight the vast majority. Sure, you can try to minimize the cost of change, and you might even get the number to 1%. But if you try to delight everyone, all the time, you’ll just make yourself crazy. Or become boring.
The numbers are probably a little worse for criminal defense. And maybe they are worse still if you work in criminal appellate law. So, it is important to be a great lawyer. And it is also important to know your worth, know what it will take to do the job right, have an honest initial meeting, and serve the sandwiches for those with the means and desire to buy them. It takes hard work and skill to represent somebody well. And it’s harder to clean up another lawyer’s mess than it is to be the original lawyer doing the job right.