Value Play

Impeccable skills are no longer enough: Why lawyers must increasingly take into account clients’ expectations about representation’s true worth.

Managing Client Expectations
Kim F. Ebert

Kim F. Ebert

January 3, 2019 12:43 PM

Being recognized by Best Lawyers is a significant professional achievement—an honor reflecting acknowledgment by one’s peers of consistent demonstration of outstanding skill representing clients’ interests.

Is outstanding skill still enough to succeed in the practice of law these days, though? Recent experience suggests it isn’t. Sophisticated clients assume that solid skills, legal knowledge, and experience are only the baseline—what enables a lawyer even to be considered for an assignment. Clients can pick from among many competent lawyers in virtually every practice area. To truly succeed in client development and retention, lawyers today must be more than just skilled technicians.

More than ever, clients now look for value in their legal representation. That doesn’t mean the lowest price. Instead, each client typically now has a unique definition of value that aligns with his or her core business strategy. Value can correlate directly with price, of course, but more often it’s a matter of price certainty—a concrete plan on which the client can rely and budget accordingly.

Value can also encompass cost control, risk sharing, creative solutions, innovation, and the overall performance of the law firm. While many clients default to the traditional hourly-rate model, many others adopt fee arrangements that create a partnering or success-based approach to put a price on a given legal service. For this to work, however, both the client and lawyer must be committed to working through any problems that might arise.

Value can also stem from something as basic as assigning the right lawyer—or non-lawyer, for that matter—to the proper tasks in the interest of efficient delivery of services. Clients understandably expect law firms to abide by the same principles under which they (and all their other suppliers) operate.

There is likewise great value, to say the least, in having a clear understanding of the client’s objectives from the outset: Is early case assessment and resolution the goal, or is the matter so important to the client that the lawyer should leave no stone unturned? Communication regarding these points is a critical component of a successful partnership—and that often means a lawyer needs to ask, not simply assume.

Consider, too, a client’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, and his or her desire to field a team reflecting a similar commitment on the part of the law firm. Also basic blocking and tackling: promptly responding to phone calls, emails, and texts; following the client’s billing and budgetary guidelines; keeping the client informed; being sensitive to the demands that in-house counsel have on their time; and avoiding surprises. Even the most skilled lawyer who doesn’t return client calls, or who otherwise fails to communicate properly, may find that the phone stops ringing altogether.

In order to truly understand clients’ value proposition, then, it’s crucial for attorneys to take time to learn which primary issues affect clients’ business and the money they spend on representation. This frequently requires lawyers to thoroughly understand clients’ line of work, their industry, and their challenges. Several key questions to consider: Which components of representation and billing are of the greatest value? What are clients’ pet peeves? How can an attorney add value in this particular case? Such information can often be gleaned through direct discussion or client assessment surveys.

The plain fact is that, especially in today’s competitive market, it is a privilege for a lawyer to be asked for legal representation. This privilege is fragile, however. The key to long-term professional success as both a lawyer and a relationship manager is to understand each client’s value proposition—then meet or exceed those expectations.


Kim Ebert has a national practice representing employers in the full range of labor and employment matters. He has been recognized in Best Lawyers since 1995. From 2010 through 2016, Mr. Ebert served as the Managing Shareholder of Ogletree Deakins. During this period the firm grew by over 300 lawyers and expanded into Europe, Canada, and Mexico.

[The nomination deadline for Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, and Switzerland is January 18. Nominate an attorney today]

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