Loyalty cuts both ways. You want your clients to be loyal and remain with you. Yet you also want other lawyers' clients to be less loyal to them, i.e., more open-minded about the advantages of working with you.

Whether you're at a bigger firm, frustrated by prospective clients clinging to small firms or solo lawyers who've been with them from the beginning, or you're that small firm/solo trying to protect your relationship with a client who has grown beyond your capability, the same principles apply to dealing with loyalty. 

Big Firm Example:

A frequent example from my coaching sessions: A now-large company still uses the small general practice firm or solo lawyer with whom the founder started out years ago. From your perspective at a bigger or more specialized firm, you perceive that the incumbent lacks certain expertise or depth to properly service the now-larger organization's more complex legal needs. You're frustrated by the founder's refusal to consider other counsel.

This founder's motive is loyalty, and such motives often relate to self-image and emotional needs. For example, how often have you heard successful people take pride in the fact that they don't forget where they came from, that they don't turn their backs on those who were with them in the beginning?

When dealing with such situations, remember two key principles:

  • Never attempt to rebut emotional needs. Instead, try to show other ways to satisfy the same need. In this example, focus the founder on the need to respond appropriately to the more complex legal issues created by the larger business. You may need to get him to think about his loyalty to his employees and their families, or to the stockholders whose investments permit the company to exist, grow and expand.
  • Never attempt to displace the incumbent. Leave areas alone that don't demand your firm's specialized skills or depth. This allows the founder to give you the "new" work without taking bread out of the incumbent's mouth.

Small Firm Example:

If you're the small firm or solo whose client has grown into a much larger enterprise with legal needs that require greater lawyer-headcount or specialized expertise beyond what you can provide, you'd be wise to approach it not as a threat to your existing franchise, but as an opportunity to serve as a valued advisor, helping your client make a strategic decision.  If you can't, or don't choose to, do that new work, then somebody else is going to do it. Isn't it to your advantage to be the one influencing who that is?

Don't be the lawyer whose client has to drag him, kicking and screaming, into the future. Be the lawyer who helps your client get there without unnecessary pain or friction.  If something is going to happen, get credit for helping it happen.

  • Recognize that this is the first instance of a trend, not an isolated requirement. As companies grow, complexity increases.
  • Initiate the discussion with your client, in which you acknowledge that you recognize how the business has changed and understand that more changes are likely. Your client will appreciate you saving her the awkwardness of having to approach you with the issue. She already wants to be fair to you, so you've allowed her to relax and pursue that goal, free of any fear that you'll try to cling to the past.
  • Identify the areas of most imminent change, and help your client anticipate the legal needs associated with that change.
  • You want to be inside the tent, part of the decision, rather than outside, wondering what's being decided. Your relevance is your most valuable asset. If you've been doing your job, you should have a lot of company-, market-, and people-specific knowledge that's valuable context for decision-support. 
  • Share with your client how you can help with at least some of those new legal needs.  If you can't help beyond what you're now doing, offer to help your client find what they'll need.
  • When you've addressed all your client's concerns, talk about where you still fit in with the client's plans.  You've just demonstrated your value beyond whatever legal tasks you perform, and her loyalty is still in place. As in the initial example above, give her a way to satisfy both her practical needs (new expertise) and her emotional needs ("loyal person who doesn't forget who helped her get started").

Remember that you're in the business of helping clients make good decisions, irrespective of your self-interest.

Mike O'Horo

To master helping clients make good decisions, go to the Getting Chosen category in RainmakerVT's course list and examine the three simulations that constitute The Decision Process:

The Door-Opener concept referenced in Step 1 is the foundation of everything that will make you a more effective business developer. If you're not familiar with it, click here to learn about Door-Opener: Associate Yourself with Business Problems that Drive Demand for Your Expertise.

Since we're talking about decisions, here, read our free eBook, No Decision: The Blind Spot that Keeps Lawyers from Doubling Their Income.