Minimizing Client Suspense

Continuing my theme on phased delivery of productized legal services. Of course I meant to write and send this last Friday, but last Friday turned into a different day than any of us had planned. And then I took a few days this week to spend in the Cascades with my family (away from cell signal). They were glorious. So my streak is gone, again, but oh well. Time to start another one.

To summarize how we got here: previously I talked about why being “responsive” to clients is a productivity killer that costs you and your clients real money. I suggested that being proactive is a far superior way to create a customer experience that will delight your clients.

I introduced Richard Susskinds’ continuum for moving legal services from a largely bespoke offering to something that better leverages your firm’s assets (tools and templates) to deliver systemized, but still customized, legal help.

I suggested that the best way to do this is to ensure that each phase of your workflow involves a client-facing deliverable, and recommended that if you don’t already know what that deliverable is for a particular phase then you should make one up.

I discussed the nature of legal products as tangible deliverables that solve a client problem, and I suggested that all client problems fall into some combination of five high-level categories: Mitigating Risk, Navigating Complexity, Finding Information, Seeking Advice, and Feeling Consortium.

So how does this contrast with how many lawyers view the purpose of their work?

There’s a cultural assumption among lawyers about what happens when a lawyer takes on a typical piece of client work: the work somehow ceases to be the client’s and instead becomes the lawyer’s.

“Well, duh,” you might be saying, “why the heck else would the client hire me?”

In the early days of the Lawyerist blog, its founder Sam Glover wrote an article titled “Why are lawyers so expensive?” In it, he effectively paints a picture of a client carrying a pack full of legal woe, but then the client hires a lawyer whose job is to shoulder that burden, and ultimately dispense with it, on the client’s behalf. The implication being that “I’m carrying this load so you don’t have to, so of course I should be well compensated for my trouble.”

Here’s how Sam described it (link is to an archived version of the post as it is no longer up at

“After a client signs a retainer with me, I look them in the eye and tell them ‘Okay, you don’t have to worry about this any more. Your problems are now my problems.’ It is just a thing I say, but it is a true thing I say. My clients go home and sleep soundly for the first time in weeks or months. I go home and think about the legal issues all evening. At night I dream about my client’s case. Sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat and pull up the scheduling order on my phone, convinced I blew a deadline. When I am at the playground with my kids, I check my email in case I get something from opposing counsel or the court. When I go out to dinner with my wife, I talk about hearings and depositions.”

I think about that claim a lot. I love Sam, and I think he’s done tremendous work helping lawyers better their craft, but I think he missed on this one. He may be accurately describing how (some) lawyers feel about their cases, but his insight into the client experience is romantic at best.

At face value, the problem with this approach is that at some point the engagement will end and the client will have to take up whatever is left in the pack and carry it on down their life’s path. Of course it isn’t the lawyer’s problem what the client does when the engagement is over, but I like to think that we lawyers are trying to leave people in a better condition than when we found them. Sam’s framing would have the lawyer with a hungry client doing all the fishing and not enough of the teaching; less an attorney-client relationship and more a transaction.

Now there are some areas of law where he’s probably close. People hire a traffic attorney to make the ticket go away, not to become a better driver. They’re calculating, in a very transactional way, that the total cost of hiring a lawyer to fight the charge is less than the cost to their lives (and wallets) of living with its consequences.

Contrast that with a divorce for a young family, where parents may have decades of child-rearing and financial entanglements based on the lawyer’s few months of work. I’d argue that the higher calling of a family law attorney is to teach their client to navigate their new normal along a healthy path; to help the client create and understand and take ownership over the tools. Too many lawyers behave like their primary job is to bear responsibility for court deadlines and paperwork instead of actually caring for their clients’ longer term needs. Even when lawyers see themselves as pursuing that higher calling, their visible behavior often skews to the technicalities.

My bigger problem with Sam’s approach is that a lawyer can take on the activities required by a legal problem, but it is impossible for clients to offload the worry and suspense of that problem. Especially the suspense. Both in terms of “I don’t know how this will end” and “My life is on hold,” the stress of living in legal limbo exacts a daily toll.

The client may sleep better that first night (assuming they aren’t worried about the retainer deposit they just made), but their stress over the matter will return, and probably intensify, as the case drags on.

If you, the lawyer, say “Trust me, I got this” and then do your work in a black box (so far as the client can tell), you, like Sam, may envision yourself as decreasing your client’s worry. But you’re really amplifying their suspense.

Unless you show your work.

Which gets me back to the benefit of client-facing deliverables. When you show your work in a tangible way, you alleviate the client’s suspense becasue they at least can see that something is happening.

It’s a terrible technique if you’re directing a horror movie: showing lots of details in an organized way with good lighting will not keep your audience on the edge of their seats. Which means it’s exactly the right tool for communicating value and progress to your client.

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