Loving your lawyer (part 1)

Last week once again America—or at least American lawyers—celebrated “Love Your Lawyer Day.” See also #loveyourlawyerday on Twitter. Beyond the marketing hype, there’s a good question:

What makes people love their lawyers?

The first answer is competence. A 2002 study of how the public perceives lawyers found the majority of consumer clients to be satisfied with their lawyers:

Consumers tell stories of lawyers who apply significant expertise and knowledge to their cases, identify practical solutions, and work hard on behalf of their clients.

The survey also delved into various aspect of lawyers’ performance with clients. 72 percent of clients were very satisfied with their lawyer’s knowledge of the law. The study did go into some factors beyond hard-skill competence. For example, 68 percent were very satisfied with how the lawyer handled the initial conversation.

This study did not ask participants to rank which criteria were most important, or most strongly correlated with satisfaction. It did not ask them whether they found it more important that the lawyer knew the law, as compared to handling the initial conversation effectively.

Analyzing a study of big-firm clients in the U.S. and similar studies in Australia, Professor Clark Cunningham’s paper “What Do Clients Want” delved deeper into the causes of client satisfaction and dissatisfaction. In these studies, the comparative importance of competence appears to be more complicated (emphasis added here):

Many lawyers equate client satisfaction with the outcome achieved; however, studies over the past three decades in three different countries has produced impressive evidence that clients evaluate their lawyers’ competence more in terms of the process experienced by them in the representation than the outcome.

It seems clients see competence as necessary but not sufficient for client satisfaction. Competence is the baseline, and something else is what makes the difference in client satisfaction or dissatisfaction. What is that something else?

Although there was widespread client satisfaction with the specialists’ legal knowledge and skills [in the Australian study of clients], the evaluators also found “consistent evidence of client dissatisfaction with the provision of services, and the quality of the service-delivery process.” According to this study (emphasis added):

Practitioners are concentrating on developing their knowledge and skills to deliver better outcomes; but their clients, expecting both technical competence and results, are being disappointed by the process of getting there. Clients complained about the quality of their lawyers’ services in terms of inaccessibility, lack of communication, lack of empathy and understanding, and lack of respect . . . .

The original idea for this post was to write about the “emotional labor” lawyers perform for their clients and others. Emotional labor means, basically, showing up and being constructive even when it’s difficult: “the effort it takes to keep your professional game face on when what you’re doing is not concordant with how you feel.”  Does a lawyer’s performance of emotional labor make the client “love” the lawyer more?

That question led to the more basic question of what motivates client satisfaction, which led to this overview of the studies above. (There must be more information; please direct my attention to additional good data on client satisfaction.) And the overview here suggests it will be worthwhile to explore emotional labor in more depth in a future post. Emotional labor does seem connected to accessibility, open communication, empathy, and respect.

Feedback would be welcome on clients “loving” their lawyers, client satisfaction generally, and the idea of lawyers performing emotional labor for clients, colleagues, and others. Please share thoughts in the comments or on social media.

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