June 21, 2011

Law Practice Magazine

March 2006

Volume 32 Number 2 | PAGE: 64 | BY: Peter Darling

First Person

At the Stanford Graduate School of Business—ground zero for budding venture capitalists, technologists and take-no-prisoners businesspeople—one of the most popular and heavily subscribed to courses is … are you ready for this? … Interpersonal Dynamics. Nicknamed “Touchy-Feely,” the course teaches that the key to business victory is emotional intelligence—understanding how others see you. It is all about feelings.

The same principle applies to the delicate issue of legal fees. The key to communicating effectively about your fees—and getting what you are worth—is understanding the interpersonal dynamics of the lawyer’s relationship with the client. You know—feelings.

Consider the new client. When choosing a lawyer, new clients usually rely on reputation, referrals and, most importantly, the impression they get of the lawyer. By putting the same effort and care into that impression as into a trial or a negotiation, lawyers can lay the groundwork for charging—and getting paid—substantially higher fees. Federal Express is not selling package delivery, it is selling peace of mind. So are you.

Signs That Make a Mark

To successfully increase your fees with new or existing clients, you have to construct every encounter they have with you to make those encounters positive ones. Consistently create the right impression and you can increase your fees. Here are a few tips for how to make this principle work.

  • Symbols. To most clients, the world of law (especially litigation) is alien, intimidating and frightening. They are looking for reassurance—signs of expertise, of authority and of confidence. For a male corporate lawyer, for example, this means the classic symbols of seniority and success—a pinstripe suit, a conservative tie with a small geometric pattern, gray hair. These subtle symbols are very powerful. How do the highest billers in your market present themselves? Learn by example, or retain an image consultant to put it all together.

  • Stories. When meeting a new client, prepare a narrative. Who are you, how did you get here, what do you do, why are you better? In court, litigators tell stories –a consistent theme runs through their case. When presenting to clients, do the same, and use it to emphasize your value.

  • Support. Provide a few tangible, specific examples of your expertise. The diploma on the wall. A few souvenirs of big cases or deals. The names of a couple of well-known clients. Don’t overdo it, but do provide a little proof.

  • Sincerity. If you don’t truly believe that you’re worth what you charge, you won’t get it. The client will know. They always do.

  • Self-assurance. Finally, understand the power of the word “no.” The best way to elevate your hourly rate is to be willing to walk away from the business. Want it, but be prepared to decline a matter if the client won’t pay your rate. Even if you never say a word about it, clients will sense it, and your fees will reflect it.

A wise senior lawyer once said to me, “A fact is a rare and valuable thing.” He was only half-right. Law may be about facts, but fees are ultimately about the perception of value, which is—you guessed it—a feeling. Know how to tap into it.