There was this one time that an accountant called me to let me know that our mutual client had called him for advice about firing one of his employees. The accountant suggested that the client give me a call, seeing that what the client needed was legal advice.
My first reaction was to wonder what type of an idiot client calls his accountant when he needs advice about employment law.
My second reaction was to realize that although I had been the lawyer for this client for many years, I was not his trusted advisor. That is not to say that the client did not like me and trust me. Our relationship had been excellent for many years. Nor did it mean that I was not capable of being a trusted advisor for my clients. I was in fact the trusted advisor of many of them. Just not this one.
The simple fact is that most clients have several advisors. Although they may trust all of them, they usually only have one “trusted advisor.” So, you probably cannot be the “trusted advisor” for all of your clients.
The corollary is that you will not be the trusted advisor of any of your clients unless: (i) you know what a trusted advisor is; (ii) your client wants to have a trusted advisor; (iii) you value being your client’s trusted advisor; and (iv) you work at becoming the trusted advisor.
Let’s look at all of these elements:
What is a Trusted Advisor?
The trusted advisor is the key advisor that a client trusts above all others to put the client’s interest first and who the client believes has the best overall judgment. When there is a problem, the trusted advisor gets the first call, whether or not the problem is within the trusted advisor’s own area of expertise.
The trusted advisor influences the client as to whether the input of other professionals is required and helps the client decide which other professionals should be hired. If the trusted advisor were to say, “Sure Murray is great and he has been your lawyer for 20 years, but for this matter you need to use a different lawyer. I suggest that you hire Sam,” you can be sure that Murray just lost a file.
Does Your Client Want to Have a Trusted Advisor?
This one is easy. Smart clients who are not arrogant do. Dumb and arrogant clients do not. Cheap clients also don’t. If your client is not dumb, nor arrogant, nor cheap, they likely would like to have a trusted advisor.
Should You Value Being Your Client’s Trusted Advisor?
This one is also easy. If you are smart, you should want to be the trusted advisor for as many of your clients as possible. If you are the trusted advisor, you get the first call. You never lose a file that should have come to you. You get to quarterback projects that require additional expertise and to choose the members of the team. When you bring other professionals onto the team, they want to refer files to you to reciprocate.
Another interesting aspect of being the trusted advisor is that your clients always pay your bill. In full. Without question. And promptly. That is just the way it works when you have your client’s full trust.
What Do You Have to Do to Become Your Client’s Trusted Advisor?
This is the difficult one. You have to get a whole bunch of things right to be the trusted advisor. Here are some of them:
- Be completely honest and have impeccable integrity.
- Be likeable.
- Be capable.
- Have common sense.
- Put your client’s interest first every time.
- Pick up the phone every time the client calls or answer every email promptly.
- Make the clients believe that you will not charge them every time they call you. (The best way to do that is not to charge them every time that they call you.)
- Invest the time to get to know your clients on a personal level. Be open. Be vulnerable.
- Take the time to learn about your client’s business, with or without charge.
- Know things beyond your own area of expertise. If you are a business lawyer, know something about Employment Law, Wills and Trusts, Real Estate, Litigation, Tax, Financing, etc. You don’t need to be an expert in any of them, but you do need to know enough to discuss them intelligently and to be aware of current issues.
- Don’t be an order-taker. Instead, be proactive. Bring ideas to your client about current issues in business, tax, etc.
- Take the time to socialize with your clients over lunch or drinks, at least a few times a year.
Is all of This Worth the Bother?
Yes, it is. Quite aside from the personal satisfaction that you will derive from having these types of relationships, investing the time to become your client’s Trusted Advisor makes financial sense. Imagine the following scenario:
You have been the client’s lawyer for 20 years. Your working relationship is great, but you are not the Trusted Advisor. The client calls you to tell you that she is selling her business for many millions of dollars in a transaction where the legal fees will be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. She just wanted to let you know that you may be called upon to assist the M&A lawyer who her Accountant (and Trusted Advisor) told her was the best person to use for the deal.
But hey, think of all of the time and money you saved by not taking her to lunch twice a year for 20 years.