I once had a partner named George. George had many very loyal clients, and I asked him to explain to me how he did it. This is one of the lessons which George taught me and which I integrated into my own philosophy about being an effective lawyer.
Clients understand risk. They take risk every day. Lawyers, on the other hand, hate risk. They are trained to identify risk, avoid risk, and manage risk. Our regulators and insurers teach us that the best way to avoid personal risk is to avoid giving advice. Everything is a “business decision”. We should identify the risks, explain the options, and leave it to the client to make the “business decision”. Above all, we should avoid giving our own opinion, because when things go wrong we need to be able to say: “it was the client’s decision…we just provided the options.”
George did believe in giving clients options– but not too many options. In fact, George believed that you always had to give the client at least 2 options, and never more than 4 options. I think that George thought that 3 options was the perfect number, although I often wondered whether the number of options shouldn’t have something to do with the situation.
However, George thought that the idea of giving the client options without a recommendation was abominable. I can still hear George pounding the table and saying: “You always give the client a recommendation. The client is paying us $250.00 an hour (this is a very old story), and they deserve to know what we think they should do!”
At the time, George was an old lawyer (he must have been at least 45, but so it seemed to me) and I was a young lawyer. Since that time, I have had the opportunity to mentor several young lawyers, and I always tell them this story and try to impress upon them that there are two different approaches that they can take to dealing with clients. They can choose to minimize their personal risk and make the regulators and the insurance company happy, with the consequences being although they will minimize their personal risk of being sued, they will not be particularly useful to their clients and they will probably not have very many clients. Alternatively, they can take George’s approach and accept some personal risk, perhaps get sued once or twice in their career, be useful to their clients and probably develop a loyal following.
Which type of lawyer would you like to have on your side?