There are three kinds of business law clients in my experience, and each type has specific needs, communication styles, and expectations of their advisers. The wise adviser learns to quickly evaluate which kind is their client and adapts quickly to meet each client’s needs.
The following is an unvarnished breakdown of those three main types, for better or worse. Hopefully, these insights will help you get the most from your attorney no matter what type you are.
1. The first kind of client, I have found, is either fearless or incredibly thrifty and will DIY most legal matters. If this client is the “fearless” subtype, he or she may dive right in and would rather seek advice from clerical staff at various government agencies than pay for legal counsel. Regardless of staff who may advise him or her to seek legal counsel, these folks plow forward, willing to accept the risk of getting it wrong and they often do.
If this client is the “thrifty” subtype, he or she may spend countless hours “researching” what others on the Internet have to say about what they think is their question. If they draft up their own form or buy a form from a form bank, they may wish to hire an attorney to review their work product, though usually not. (Ironically, if you have found this blog and are reading this post, you may be a thrifty client type working very hard to learn enough to get by from lawyers’ blogs and webpages like these.)
These clients will often seek out inexperienced counsel with a low hourly or marginal rate, in a misguided attempt to save money. They will call anyone they can find in the hopes of getting “free advice.” As a young lawyer, I heard from these types of clients a lot when I first started practicing.
It takes a lot to get these folks to hire an advisor, and by the time they realize they are in over their head, the legal aspects of their business are all-to-often a hot mess. That is usually when I hear from them and it can get expensive to go back, redraft the problematic documents along with everything needed to implement those revised agreements and any negotiation, if there are other parties involved.
If counsel treads carefully among the ruins of their hard work and the client is willing to learn, this kind of client can sometimes be reformed into a very sophisticated client. All too often, a relationship with a client of this type does not end satisfactorily despite best efforts, however, and these clients may have a long, string of “past” attorneys to show for it. Sadly, these clients can cost themselves a lot of time, money, and frustration trying to be their own paralegal.
BOTTOM LINE: Untangling what the first kind of client has done or failed to do sometimes takes quite a lot of time and money, if it can be done at all.
They will want their adviser to be fairly hands-off. The extent to which counsel can delegate tasks to them may determine how happy they will be. If not allowed to participate, they may be distrustful and will not understand why a “simple agreement” would take more than a few hours to prepare. Patient, consistent education and demonstration of the value of professional work product may be required to maintain a good working relationship.
2. The second kind of business law client is very, very, very concerned about avoiding litigation and limiting their exposure to risk. They are willing to spend copious amounts of money so long as they receive reassurance that they are “doing everything the right way.”
They may have attended a lot of seminars preaching elaborate ways to avoid taxes, to remain anonymous while investing, or to protect their assets from unscrupulous plaintiffs’ attorneys/customers/employees/regulatory agencies. They may use a lot of legalese they have learned from their research, although they may have the wrong impression about what these terms actually mean.
Nonetheless, these clients know what they don’t know and usually are very open to expanding their understanding. They do ultimately want the independence exercised (perhaps prematurely) by the first type of client but feel they need some help getting there. As a result, this kind of client appreciates counsel who is willing to educate them about their business, building their confidence in their own abilities in preparation for sending them off to run their business on their own.
The second kind of client are diligent and wants counsel who is just as meticulous. They can be distrustful of counsel, however, if the attorney is critical of or unfamiliar with any number of schemes suggested to them in a “wealth building” seminar, or even once in my practice, a heavy equipment dealer. For the most part, though, this client will appreciate an experienced attorney who can credibly reassure them, who is a good teacher, and who can introduce them to other advisers who can help them with the next steps.
While some attorneys may not want to do the “hand-holding” required by this client, the rewards can be great when these clients finally do achieve independence with a solid understanding of their business and its requirements.
BOTTOM LINE: Pre-planning is the modus operandi of this type, though they may blow their entire start-up budget on legal fees if they aren’t careful.
Though these clients may enhance the law firm’s bottom line quite nicely, an attorney who is concerned about the total well-being of the client’s business may find themselves compelled to gently remind the client that legal work is only a framework for the business, however, and not the entirety of it. A long-term relationship with the second type of client will require sensitivity to their concerns, successful reassurance regarding what should not be a concern, and the foresight to help them avoid ultimate sticker shock by preventing them from spending excessively on legal fees with little real value in return.
3. The third kind of client is more well-balanced and self-aware and has a good understanding of their own limitations and strengths. This type is often more experienced in making business decisions and are willing to pay for superior experience in a matter, happily deferring issues to someone who knows what they are doing.
They understand what a huge loss it would be to take time away from running their business to try to DIY the legal stuff. They also appreciate that it is way cheaper to have their legal issues handled correctly than to create issues they later must undo and redo. (Maybe they are a reformed first-type.)
Communication with these clients is direct, to the point, and business law terminology can be used with a fair degree of certainty that it is understood or that the client is sophisticated enough to ask for more information and analogize your answer to other experiences they may have had. The relationship between these clients and counsel can be very collegial, and not infrequently, work with these clients stretches my capabilities and I learn from them as much as they learn from me. (Maybe they are a reformed second-type.)
This third type of client will plan ahead for projects but may wait until the last minute to actually execute those plans in order to save the cost of redrafting should the deal take an unexpected course. This “just in time” mode of operating is great except they will want an attorney to be available to them precisely when they are needed and not a moment sooner or later.
BOTTOM LINE: The third kind of client generally will seek experienced counsel who is well-connected with a team of other advisers and who can cut to the chase quickly. They will want counsel’s direct phone number.
Nonetheless, these clients are simply a joy to work with. After a few battles won and lost, experience has tempered them and their expectations of legal counsel, the legal system, and the cost of good advice and diligent representation.
These folks are also incredibly discerning, however, and will detect and have very low tolerance for ineptitude in or blustering by counsel. They prefer working with attorneys who are equally experienced as they, and new lawyers will not be able to “fake it ’til they make it” with these folks. They are happy to receive a good work product for a reasonable price, as these clients are invested in the relationship for the long-term and, while not cost-adverse, are value-driven. If they enjoy the working relationship, you will hear from them again on their next deal.