Insights in Action: Differing perceptions of stand-out lawyers’ skill sets
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In the post-pandemic environment, many employers of highly skilled workers — including law firms — are looking for ways to use the lessons of the recent crisis to create improved work strategies that will reflect the value they place on their top employees and ways in which they can also enhance client service.
First, however, firms need to determine the most valuable attributes that clients see in the lawyers they hire, and equally importantly, the most valuable attributes that lawyers see within themselves.
The newly released Thomson Reuters report, Stellar Performance 2022: A Survey of Stand-out Talent, took a deep dive into these questions, parsing the perspective of where both clients and lawyers see the value in their professional relationship. The report was compiled from the findings of a survey, distributed to lawyers who were nominated as stand-out lawyers by their clients. This year, 2,457 stand-out lawyers responded to the survey, a large majority of which are law firm partners.
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The survey queried clients on what qualities in those lawyers that they nominated as stand-out lawyers makes them truly stand out to clients. The survey also asked those stand-out lawyers what they think clients value in them. Interestingly, the results should give law firms a great starting point to better understand the qualities that firms should seek and nurture in order to hire and retain what clients see as the most-valued types of lawyers. (In fact, the report noted that having three or more stand-out lawyers on your client team allowed firms to grow their share of legal spend with existing clients.)
An individual lawyer’s technical expertise — described as the quality of advice, specialist knowledge, experience, and competence the lawyer demonstrates — were among the key reasons given by clients for why they chose specific attorneys as stand-out lawyers.
Of course, this isn’t a surprise — these very attributes are commonly seen as the primary rationale for having a professional relationship with any external lawyer, stand-out or not. In many cases, the report notes, a client citing technical expertise as a lawyer’s stand-out quality is likely referring to a strength in one particular aspect of law relative to others. As such, technical expertise then has become the table stakes that lawyers need to stand out in the minds of their clients.
Indeed, you can see this factor at work throughout the legal industry. Many law firms focus their recruiting and training on the eventual advancement of their outstanding legal talent, which results in the legal industry overall being highly regarded for technical expertise.
What this means for individual law firms, however, is that they should look beyond technical expertise to understand why some of their individual lawyers are selected as stand-outs over others. This process of understanding this concept will in turn demonstrate to firms why certain lawyers have become real stand-out lawyers and what their distinctive attributes are, in combination with their technical expertise, that makes them so favored by clients.
In fact, some of the other attributes noted by clients about the lawyers they see as stand-outs include their ability to:
- offer proactive, business-savvy advice;
- deliver exceptional client service; and
- integrate well in the client’s current legal team.
In the survey, between one-quarter and one-third of clients named each of these three stand-out factors in describing their favored stand-out lawyers. Additionally, almost one-fifth of clients nominated a stand-out lawyer on account of his or her working style, such as diligence, which seems particularly valued by clients today.
Interestingly, while clients also saw such other factors as value pricing, reputation, and geographic proximity as important in driving their favorability towards a particular law firm, these factors were notably less of a focus for clients when considering individual stand-out lawyers, according to the report.
Now, let’s take a look at what the lawyers themselves think their clients consider stand-out factors. While the results are similar to that of clients, the views of many stand-out lawyers do differ in emphasis, especially in what service factors they believe most drive their selection as stand-outs by clients.
For example, stand-out lawyers are less likely than their clients to perceive their own legal expertise as a key source of their value. If you think about it, however, that does make sense. These lawyers are surrounded by other technical experts, so they may not see that expertise as unique or special enough to warrant stand-out status. Instead, they see the knowledge that they deliver beyond the core technical offering — on client service and relationship factors, for example — as what sets them apart.
If you examine this divergence deeper, it sheds some interesting light on how value is perceived differently between clients and their outside lawyers. Clients see their most-valued lawyers as chiefly being able to perform at a high level on what lawyers themselves see as is expected of them as lawyers. The lawyers, in turn, are already striving to give clients more beyond this norm of technical expertise by moving into areas of specialized knowledge. Thought of in this way, you could see this relationship dynamic as very beneficial to both parties: Clients don’t have greatly heightened expectations of what their lawyers can provide, yet the lawyers are striving to exceed those standards anyway.
The report goes on to observe that the pandemic has strongly impacted how clients view quality client service, at least in the minds of stand-out lawyers. Many of these lawyers now believe that factors such as communication with clients and responsiveness to their needs have increased in importance over the last year, impacting how clients’ view quality service. The report further suggests that this shift reflects clients’ expectations in the post-pandemic working world, and underscores how stand-out lawyers need to stay well-tuned to what matters most to their clients and must continually adapt to changes in client requests.
Further, other attributes — business acumen and being close to the client — remain critical in the view of stand-out lawyers, the report notes. Indeed, these two qualities are separate, but they remain closely related and facilitate each other to a degree. Business savvy and a proactive, solutions-focused approach generally come together under the rubric of business acumen, which itself is gained through experience and exposure to a wide variety of business contexts and challenges.
As mentioned, examining the differing perspectives between clients and stand-out lawyers presented in the Stellar Performance 2022 report can give law firms a launching pad toward a better understanding of what attributes their clients want to see in their outside counsel and how best to hire, train, and retain lawyers with those particular attributes.