Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Friday, April 08, 2005

The Attorney-Client Relationship

One of the sessions at LexThink was about the attorney-client relationship, which, honestly, is something I hadn't much thought about. Even as a summer associate, I feel like you just don't get exposed to that side of the equation much. The discussion started with a comment by one of the attendees, who isn't a lawyer, saying that he finds it frustrating that his lawyers want to come in, solve a problem, and then get out -- but don't want to learn about the business, don't want to really work with the client and develop a relationship as an advisor, and don't really want to act as a team. They just want to come in for every transaction, do what they do, and get out. And this, he thought, was a bad thing -- or at least it wasn't the way he would envision it in a perfect world. He wanted a lawyer that would learn about the company and work on not just the obvious problems that need to be dealt with, but uncover other legal issues that may not be so obvious, or be a part of the team that decides how the business should act -- to be there to consult on what the legal ramifications of x act or y act would be, and how to work within the law to be a better business. For it to be relational instead of transactional. To be proactive instead of just reactive. To help fireproof the house instead of just being a firefighter. (Okay, three of those sentences is more than enough.) And the consensus was that that just isn't how most lawyers work, at least not in the context of the larger firms.

The thought that I had was that a large part of this is probably due to specialization. People at the firm I was at were specialists -- they did '40 Act stuff, or mutual fund stuff, or tax stuff. So they'd be great when there's a specific problem to solve -- it's all they do, so they'd be experts. But I didn't get the sense there were really "generalists" who could come in and do everything, or even felt like their job was to go in and scope the whole situation out before referring it to the specialists.

The related complaint seemed to be that lawyers' bedside manner isn't always very good. That they weren't responsive to client needs, that they weren't always treating clients with respect and listening and solving the problems the client wanted solved. That lawyers function by keeping the client in the dark, keeping the law a mystery that only the lawyer has access to, and that only the lawyer has the expertise to deal with. When that's not really true -- so much of what passes for legal work can be done by any reasonably smart person, law degree or not. There were complaints that lawyers never do client surveys, or really do much at all to manage the relationship. And all of the secrecy leads to problems on the behavioral end -- it makes it a lot easier to charge a client for more hours than a problem really needs if the client has no idea what's involved in solving the problem; it makes it a lot easier to get away with mistakes; it makes it easier to cheat. I heard stories at the conference about associates who completed a project but a partner would make them spend more hours on it, just to pad the bill. Or partners who would have associates reinvent the wheel each time, just because someone else was footing the bill.

What I kept thinking about was an analogy to doctors and hospitals. In my health care law class, I think the professor talked in one of the first classes about how hospitals are often full because there's an incentive to fill the beds -- as long as there are beds, doctors will fill them. Patients on the borderline will get admitted, etc. Similarly, for lawyers, the incentive is to fill the day. If there are hours, they will get billed. But this isn't always in the patient's (or client's) best interest. But at least with doctors and hospitals, there are people managing the system. I mean, insurance companies are kind of evil, and they probably do a pretty bad job of this -- but there are general practitioners and triage nurses, who see patients before they get referred to the specialists. And there are hospitalists, who manage the system from that end (read this if you want a book by two hospitalists about medical mistakes and the systemic problems causing them, and how to fix them -- I helped edit it when I worked at a publishing company; it's a really good book, seriously).

But law firms don't have those pieces, at least as far as I've been able to tell. There's no one who tells a client when they need a specialist, or looks at the bigger picture to make sure the relationship is working and the client needs are being fulfilled. Maybe there is and they just don't work well enough to satisfy client needs as much as clients want. I mean, I would imagine there's some point person at every firm, with every client, who's in charge of the relationship. It would be silly if there wasn't. But in other industries, I feel like it's really prominent in a way it isn't with law firms -- in advertising there are account executives, who manage the client relationship from beginning to end; at the software company I worked for before law school there were people who called in to check and see if the customer was happy. I got the sense from the people at LexThink that this just doesn't happen in law.

So some sort of Customer Relationship Management. People on the client's side, to help manage the process, determine the specialist lawyers they need, work proactively instead of just reactively, relationally instead of just transactionally. Interesting. Does any of this make any sense?