Only You - The Platters.jpg

This is a common lament and challenge. If your client will only accept you doing their work, how do you introduce colleagues or juniors? If you don’t figure that out, you’ll remain hostage and will never achieve the level of business you aspire to.

Like so many obstacles lawyers struggle to overcome, this is one they create themselves. Which means it’s one you can eliminate easily.

Why do clients insist on you, and only you, doing their work?

They want what you sold them

The answer is simple and, if you think about it, obvious. “You” is what you sold them. Your expertise. Your experience. You, you, you. Why would you expect them to want or accept anyone else?

We’ve all heard variations on the expression, “Be careful what you wish for. You might get it.” Attributed to Aesop, among others (“"We would often be sorry if our wishes were gratified"), it refers to unintended consequences of our wishes being granted. The “I want only you to do the work” problem is a version of this good news/bad news scenario.

The good news is that the client was sufficiently impressed with your credentials that she hired you. The bad news is, in her mind she hired you, specifically. When you persuade a prospect to hire you, you’ll absolutely get that. They’ll hire you. Not your colleagues. Not junior people. At least not without some understandable pushback.

Lawyers and other professionals hold to the ego-centric belief that it’s necessary to sell yourself, literally. Just because it has worked (albeit with unintended consequences) doesn’t mean it’s the right way to do it.

Change how you sell

This problem can only be solved on the front end. It can’t be solved after the fact.

Once the client has bought you, you have to deliver you. Solving it on the front end means changing the way you sell, which means recognizing that the sale is never about you unless you make the mistake of making it about you.

To free yourself of these constraints, focus on the reason that the client will hire any lawyer (not just you). She has a specific goal in mind. She has a problem that she wants to make go away, or limit the impact of, or recover from. Or she wants to exploit an opportunity.

Conduct your sales conversation in a way that results in her concluding that the best way to maximize the odds of achieving the desired outcome is to make you responsible for that outcome. Talk about the problem or opportunity. Demonstrate that you understand that problem by asking astute questions about the context in which it arises and within which it must be solved. Prospects recognize that these are questions that could only be asked by someone with the requisite experience.

Help her right now, not later

Most people will conclude that someone who understands the problem well enough to ask astute questions can solve it. Don’t talk about how you’ll help her once you’ve been hired. Help her now. Lead her to greater clarity, which is prerequisite to being comfortable enough to make a decision and pull the trigger on a solution. That will also make her comfortable with trusting you to get her where she needs to go.

Be humble. Acknowledge openly that the successes attributed to you were necessarily the product of a high-functioning team, whose whole is much, much greater than the sum of its parts. You may be the most visible and celebrated member of the team, but you can’t deliver what she wants alone. You’re the leader of the team, defining its strategy, guiding its actions based on the full team’s input, assuring exemplary performance, and accepting full responsibility.

Just as you avoid associating the service value with your skills, avoid attaching it to other team members, too, or you’ll run the risk of merely shifting the client’s narrow demand (and the problems associated with it) to a different lawyer. Make sure that the client is buying the team, and its track record of integrating various skills and disciplines to produce the desired outcome. Invest the team’s value in its processes and procedures, i.e., its “how.” The “how” transcends individuals, and survives any defections.

A powerful example

Some years ago, an M&A lawyer I coached proved the wisdom of this “team asset” philosophy. Over the years, he’d helped his client acquire more than two dozen companies. As you’d expect, over time, people joined and left the team and the firm. However, the M&A team never missed a beat. Their “how” was so reliable that, when a newly-appointed General Counsel declared that she was leaning toward using a larger firm, the company’s business-unit leaders convinced the GC that that would be a mistake. They positioned the outside firm’s team as a corporate “capability-asset” that they’d all invested in co-developing over the years, an asset that could be counted on to complete the transaction on time and under budget. They never mentioned a single lawyer’s name, referencing only the integrated team. The team asset earned powerful allies and saved this client.

That’s what you want your clients to buy (and protect). And when they buy the team, that’s what they’ll get -- however you’ve decided it should be constituted on any given day according to your best judgment. You’ll decide who will serve in which roles, when, and to what degree. That includes your own role. What’s important is that she’s relying on you as the single point of accountability, not the main worker-bee.

Mike O’Horo