Productivity thrives in a clear mind

Have you ever had one of those nights, when you doze off only to be jolted awake with worry about something you need to do? Or caught yourself thinking “as soon as I get back to the office, I’ll send that email to the client,” only to realize hours later that you didn’t do it?

When you have a lot going on, things tend to get dropped or otherwise fouled up. Especially if you’re worried about something or you’re facing a difficult decision, your thoughts may be agitated by the “noise” of life. To-do items blend with ideas and interruptions into one big fog of mental chaos.

One example from 2003: I was preparing for a major client meeting in between meeting with my mother’s doctors and hospice aides. On the way home, I stopped the grocery store.  By some miracle, I had a list of the items I needed to buy.  But I was so distracted that I returned to my car to find the keys in the ignition and the car engine running!  Just today, I passed by an empty car parked in a garage with the engine running, and I wondered what stress caused the driver to make that mistake.

Maybe you’ve never left a car running, but almost everyone has a story of errors, omissions, and just plain dumb moves that come from an overfull brain. An oldie-but-goodie post by Zen Habits titled 15 Can’t-Miss Ways to Declutter Your Mind can help you get clarity and focus so you can get things done.  The tactics (with clarification available in the Zen Habits post):

  1. Breathe.
  2. Write it down.
  3. Identify the essential.
  4. Eliminate.
  5. Journal.
  6. Rethink your sleep.
  7. Take a walk.
  8. Watch less TV.
  9. Get in touch with nature.
  10. Do less.
  11. Go slower.
  12. Let go.
  13. Declutter your surroundings.
  14. Single-task.
  15. Get a load off.  (Vent!)

Does this seem soft? It’s just another step to reach the focused mind described in David Allen’s Getting Things Done. If what you’re doing isn’t working as well as you’d like, maybe it’s time to try another tactic.

How to deliver exceptional client service

While I was exploring the ‘net last week to get additional input to my “what is client service… really?” inquiry, I ran across a nice article titled, “How to Deliver Exceptional Client Service.” Written from the perspective of a web agency, the article starts with the bold-but-obvious thesis that just doing what the client hired you to do isn’t exceptional, nor will it set you apart from your competitors.  Consider this:

“You are hired to design and develop a new website for a retail client. The client loves the design, and the pages you develop use the latest in HTML5, CSS3 and responsive design, resulting in a website that works wonderfully across browsers and devices. The e-commerce features of the new website help the client significantly increase their online sales, and the entire project is delivered on time and on budget. Now, is this “exceptional” client service? I don’t think it is.”

Substitute words that are applicable to the kind of legal work you do—you’re hired to negotiate an employment agreement or to handle a divorce or to guide a company through a merger—and you do that, do it well, and do it within the budget the client expects. That’s good client service, sure. But it isn’t, and shouldn’t be, exceptional.

(As a sidenote, just doing your job in any respect isn’t enough to set you apart from others. That means strategic thinking, responsive communication, and being accessible to your clients won’t distinguish you from other good practitioners. I often urge lawyers to find their points of distinction, and too many count these attributes as extraordinary when they aren’t.)

The article sets out seven ways to uplevel your client service:

  1. Create real relationships. “If we do not engage with our clients in a real, personal way, then we are just another vendor….”
  2. Ask real questions. Connect with your clients.
  3. Participate in more than just projects. Go outside a pure business setting with your clients.
  4. Help them with services that you do not provide. This is where your network supports your business development work: make introductions to help your clients.
  5. Pick up the phone. In today’s environment in which a telephone call may be viewed as an interruption, you’ll want to be careful to equate good communication with a spontaneous telephone call, but the point remains: know how you clients want to receive communications, act accordingly, and do so in a way that builds your relationship.
  6. Face the bad times head on. How you handle sharing bad news says volumes about you as a practitioner and about how you view your clients and your responsibility to them.
  7. Be thankful and show appreciation. The personal touch is always appreciated, even if it’s not discussed.

Be sure to read the whole article. It’s a quick read, and well worth your time.


The Romance (or Not) of Practicing Law and Getting Business

Nearly 10 years ago now, David Maister (a now-retired advisor to professional services firms) wrote a brilliant article distinguishing the relational and transactional views of client relations.  Here’s the crux of Maister’s argument:

In The Trusted Advisor (Free Press, 2000), my coauthors and I pointed out that building trusting relationships with clients leads to many benefits: less fee resistance, more future work, more referrals to new clients, and more effective and harmonious work relationships with the clients.

However, many people have built their past success on having a transactional view of their clients, not a relationship one, and it is not clear that they really want to change. Stated bluntly, professionals say that they want the benefits of romance, yet they still act in ways that suggest that what they are really interested in is a one-night stand.

. . .

Most professional-to-client interactions involve little if any commitment to each other beyond the current deal. The prevailing principle is “buyer beware.” Mutual guardedness and suspicion exist, and the interaction is full of negotiation, bargaining, and adversarial activity. Both sides focus on the terms, conditions, and costs of temporary contact. Each side treats THEM as “different,” as “other.”

. . .

Moving from a one-night-stand (transactional) mentality to a romance (relationship) mindset is not about incremental actions, but requires a complete reversal of attitudes and behaviors. One approach is not necessarily “better” than another, but there is a real choice to be made.

In today’s post-recession legal economy, clients have more options than ever before. They can choose from a wide range of law firms (the size of firm and perceived expertise becomes only one factor to consider rather than the deciding factor in every instance), from numerous individuals, and even from outsourcing options that may rely on non-lawyers or technology. While transactions can be valuable, client relationships are the only certain route to building a strong foundation for a practice.

Consider this quote from the article: 

The real challenge, however, is for all of us as individuals, not as firms. Transactions are common because they involve less hard work and demand fewer skills. Ultimately, however, they are not in the best long-term interests of either professional or client. (emphasis added)

Mutual trust will allow both sides to get more of what they seek than continued mutual suspicion. Relationships are not more “noble” than transactions, but where they can be created they are much more profitable.

If you’ve never asked yourself whether you want relationships or one-night stands with clients, go read Maister’s article and ask yourself now. The topic was ripe in 2005, but it’s absolutely critical today.


Legal Business Development: How do I choose the right differentiators?


A reader recently sent in a question following this article about finding ways to stand out from other practitioners in your field.
After outlining several potential points of differentiation, this general litigator asked, “I just can’t figure out how to make myself stand out in a town with thousands of attorneys.  I write, I speak, I’m involved – but I am not really generating any traction. How do I choose the right way to differentiate myself from everybody else?” 

My Answer: 

Distinctions come to be in one of three ways:

  1. By virtue of the practice area, such as Hatch-Waxman Act work or doing special needs trusts.
  2. Due to some particular experience or skill developed in the past, such as a patent licensing lawyer who has a background in tax issues and can therefore address at least some tax issues without having to resort to a tax lawyer.
  3. As the result of experience gained over time in one or two specific subcategories of a practice — which is what you describe with the concentrations you mentioned and (to a lesser degree) the classes you’ve taught as an adjunct professor.

When it comes to building your own practice (as distinct from looking to introduce potential clients to other firm lawyers in other areas of practice, for example), #3 is probably the most common way to set up a point of distinction.

When you’re deciding what to pursue to set yourself apart, think about whether the areas of practice you might pursue are ones you enjoy and could envision as the scope of your practice, the likelihood that those areas will hold steady and preferably expand over time, and the accessibility of a viable category of potential clients who would need help in those areas. If one of the substantive areas you’re considering tends to be cyclical, consider whether there’s a related practice area that is counter-cyclical. There’s nothing wrong with a cyclical practice area as long as the same factors that would drive business down in one area would drive it up in another.

Given that you’re in general litigation, I think you’ll end up with two avenues of distinction: one is substantive, as you’ve outlined above, and the second may be in terms of how you serve your clients. Think about what you can do to make it easy for your clients to do business with you, how you can provide a “value add” for them, and so on. Those take time to figure out, but keep it in the back of your mind and notice what you see that works well (or not) and what clients seem to value.

Most importantly, recognize that even though a distinction may sometimes occur organically, it more often is something that you will select and then bring to fruition. That means that you can choose your area(s) of focus and work to increase your experience and build your reputation in those areas, but it also means that you need to make your decision now and get moving.