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The Importance of Understanding Your Client's Business

by Jim Durham /

iStock-484195074.jpgWhenever I conduct a client interview for a law firm, the first question I always ask is “What do you like best about working with the firm?” The answer almost every time is that the primary lawyer “is really responsive and really knows my business.”

Think about this for a moment. In over 175 meetings with clients, that is the answer I get about 90% of the time.  In the face of that data, how can we think that anything is more important to a lawyer’s professional reputation than being responsive and knowing the client’s business?  Individuals and business clients of every shape, size, and industry want the same basic things from their lawyers.

Technically, what we do as lawyers is, inter alia, write contracts, give legal advice, negotiate, litigate disputes, and assist with regulatory compliance. We must do these things well to be successful, but almost all lawyers do. How we do this work—responsively, and with and an understanding of the client’s needs, business and industry—is where we need to focus if we want to be perceived as great lawyers. But there is more.

How Well Do You Know Your Client's Business?

How well do you know your client's business? Can you answer questions such as: 

  • Who are the company's principal competitors?
  • What is the potential market for the company's goods or services?
  • How are the individuals at the client company rewarded or judged?
  • What is the company’s strategic plan?  

If you could not provide an answer to the questions above, you need to invest more time getting to know your clients better. You should do some meaningful research, and learn more about their business and what is important to them personally—that is the foundation for being considered a great lawyer. Go see your client at no expense, and learn what matters to them personally and professionally.

One client told me that he would be willing to pay his lawyers to read his strategic plan, because it would make them more valuable to him. Another said she would be thrilled if her lawyers asked to read the company’s strategic plan “but I wouldn’t expect to pay them for it.” A client in the retail business said she wanted to know that her lawyers have been to the company’s stores, and that they understand how they introduced new merchandise.

In one clear example of the importance of knowing a client’s business, one law firm made the mistake of asking for a rate increase just a day after the client (a public company) announced a bad first-quarter financial performance. The client said the firm might have been entitled to a fee increase, but the timing showed a lack of sensitivity and a lack of understanding of the client’s business. They shifted the work to another firm.

Research is useful, but the best way to learn about a client’s business is to talk to them. You can learn a lot in business (and in life) by just asking good questions and listening to the answers. 

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