The learning curve
Advice for trainees on what is needed to win a client's confidence in you as their adviser
Many a lawyer has been known to say in jest that “This job would be okay if it wasn’t for the clients!” It is true that dealing with clients can be the most challenging part of the job. However, it can also be the most rewarding.
As a trainee, many factors, such as the firm you are with, the area of law you are training in, or the stage you are at in your training, will influence how much direct client contact you have. Too much responsibility in this regard before you are properly equipped is high risk for you and your firm, and can be counter-productive, but a good level of measured exposure to clients is undoubtedly an essential part of any rounded training programme.
Not every role, of course, is client facing in the strict sense, and some trainees will be destined to fulfil a professional support or legal counsel role; however, these roles too involve the provision of a service, and the same core skills will be required in order to discharge your duties in a satisfactory manner.
Know your stuff
It goes without saying that a solid working knowledge of the basics is a prerequisite for any client contact but, in my view, until you have an appreciation of the client-facing side of the business, the full sphere of your role as a professional adviser is not apparent. With this in mind, I encourage you to push for as much client contact as possible in terms of shadowing and low-level tasks from an early stage in your traineeship.
The cardinal rule for any lawyer when dealing with a client is to be prepared (so far as possible), and be clear and concise in your advice and communications from the outset. Good preparation is even more important for trainees, who in many cases will require to overcome the connotations that go with the “trainee” label, in order to earn the client’s respect.
A sensible starting place is to put yourself in the client’s shoes and consider: What would the key issues be for you? What would your expectations be? What kind of adviser would you relate to? This will enable you to identify what your own objectives as an adviser should be. Once these are fixed, you can focus on achieving them.
Confidence is key
You will inevitably require to adapt your approach and style depending on the circumstances, but you will rarely go wrong if you are able to demonstrate a clear understanding of your client’s position and communicate your reasoned advice in a confident and professional manner. The very appearance of confidence is crucial (no matter how you may actually be feeling) as, if you appear unsure or doubt yourself, then notwithstanding that your advice may be good, a client will be less inclined to follow it.
Resist the temptation to waffle, and don’t be scared to play the “That’s a good question, I will look into that and get back to you” card if you are put on the spot about something you are unsure of. Clearly, this should be a card less often required as your confidence grows, but in my view a client will much prefer this (provided you do look into it promptly and revert) to a half-baked, or even worse, incorrect answer.
Ultimately, fruitful client relationships will be those that work for both you and the client. A key skill for any lawyer, and one which trainees should seek to develop at an early stage, is the ability to control the relationship. By this I mean, in the main, controlling the lines of communication, directing the transaction, and managing expectations (in order that they may be more readily met, and exceeded). If you can achieve this and build a mutual respect and rapport with a client, you will find that they are more likely to listen to and follow your guidance.
Ask yourself, why would a client choose me ahead of others? There may be many reasons, but largely it will be because you are perceived as adding value. In the current market, competition for clients is fierce and the importance of strong relationships cannot be underestimated.
At trainee level, you will not be the owner of the connection or relationship, but you will be a custodian and it is important therefore, for your own prospects as well as those of your firm, that these relationships are protected and developed over time. In tough economic times, the importance of client care and business development cannot be overstated, and a trainee who can demonstrate a genuine understanding of this will become a valuable asset to their firm.
Ritchie Whyte is Training Partner with Aberdein Considine & Co
t: 01224 589700 w: www.acandco.com