New Zealand Law Society - Client-centric legal representation

Client-centric legal representation

By Emily Morrow

What’s unique about it?

If one asked most lawyers whether they provide client-centric legal services, the vast majority would say they do. However, if one were to ask what client-centric representation means, I suspect many lawyers would say something like “legal work that is high-quality and addresses the problems and concerns the client has”. Although this definition is not incorrect, it is incomplete and potentially misleading.

Lawyers who offer true client centric legal representation tailor the way they provide legal services so they:

  • address the client’s legal needs;
  • take into account the educational, intellectual and professional capabilities of the client;
  • employ excellent listening and communication skills;
  • consider the client’s life, business and personal experiences;
  • accommodate the client’s socioeconomic, cultural, linguistic and physical and/or psychological special circumstances (such as eyesight, hearing, ADHD and the like);
  • make reasonable assumptions about the client’s temperament preferences and use that to achieve the best communication outcomes;
  • consider the age and stage of the client; and
  • decide, on a case-by-case manner, how best to communicate with clients including face-to-face meetings, telephone calls, emails, letters, video conferencing, etc.

From this perspective, much legal advice is offered in a “one-size-fits-all” manner which can result in less than ideal outcomes, client dissatisfaction and lost revenue. Many lawyers communicate with their clients as though the clients were other lawyers and provide information accordingly. As professionals, sometimes we lose the ability to communicate and build relationships well.

Some firms are making client-centric legal representation a core element of how they do their work and differentiate themselves. For example, Kylie Maree Haw of Carter Chung in Wellington says: “Our firm decided to focus on client-centric legal services so every client would be fully engaged in transactions and make informed decisions – as opposed to being told what to do and not fully understanding the advice. Benefits have included a large and loyal client base, many referrals from existing clients and frequent opportunities for our younger/less-experienced team members to provide excellent service and build their own client base.”

Client-centric core capabilities

Assuming a lawyer wants to provide client-centric legal representation, what are the core capabilities they will need to develop beyond technical expertise in a particular practice area? I suggest the following:

Temperament: Learn a bit about your own and others' temperament preferences and how to use that knowledge to communicate more effectively. For example, is your client an introvert or extrovert? Is he or she someone who naturally thinks conceptually or do they need more concrete detail to process information? Do they rely more on analytical or emotional considerations? Does your client prefer brainstorming and opening up options or do they feel more comfortable approaching issues in an orderly and methodical way?

Listening/questioning skills: Fine-tune communication skills including active listening, strategic questioning and an understanding of how to develop high trust professional relationships. Active listening consists of clearing one’s mind of other matters and focusing solely on what the other is saying, followed by a brief pause before one responds with either a comment or follow-up question. Strategic questioning is based on the careful use of open-ended and probing/data gathering questions that ensure a high quality and comprehensive discussion. High trust professional relationships rely on sufficient disclosure of key information, flexibility in approach, regular high-quality interaction, consistency over time and bringing good intentions to the process.

Imagination: Use some imagination to put yourself into the mind of your client and tailor how and what you say so it will align well with the client’s needs, interests and approaches. Walk around in the other person’s shoes for a while.

Some case studies

Considering these capabilities, how might one approach working with the following hypothetical clients?


Susan is in her early 40s and is the founder of and CEO of a successful hi-tech company. She is a new client and has arrived for her first meeting dressed in well-pressed blue jeans and a T-shirt and is wearing beautifully crafted shoes. Susan has come to talk about representing her company and handling its commercial work. She has brought with her a list of questions about the firm’s expertise, the services it offers and so forth, and takes notes during the meeting. Susan is direct in her approach and self-confident.

Susan is an extrovert and may appreciate regular and high-quality contact with her lawyer, either in person or remotely. She is likely to be focused on details, although she probably will have the natural ability to place these in an appropriate context. Asking her to describe how much detail she wants in providing legal advice will likely be helpful. Her background in IT may predispose her to preferring an analytical approach to problem-solving.

As a CEO, one can assume Susan will be a reasonably sophisticated legal services consumer. Therefore, it may be appropriate to use a certain amount of “legalese” in working with her, being sure, however to define any terms with which she may be unfamiliar. She will probably be comfortable with quite a businesslike arrangement in terms of fees and retainers and will appreciate a direct approach to financial matters.

Bill and Karen

Bill and Karen are a couple in their early 70s and are existing clients of the firm. Bill inherited a family business from his father and has been running it for the last 30 years. They have come in to review and update their estate plan. Bill has prepared a list of the outcomes he would like to achieve for the estate plan, whereas Karen is very interested in talking about their family. Bill is a relatively quiet individual and often defers to Karen who is quite talkative. Despite the success of the business, Bill and Karen have not put much time and effort into their estate plan to date. Bill is slightly hard of hearing and Karen has cataracts.

A lawyer working with Bill and Karen will need to combine two quite different work styles in advising them. Bill will benefit from a conceptual ‘top down’ approach that is outcomes driven and will need assistance in fitting the details into that approach in an analytical, organised and commercial way. Because he is quiet he may appear to defer to Karen so one will need to ensure his perspective is fully included. Karen will likely find ‘legal jargon’ off-putting. She will benefit from being presented with some clear options with predictable consequences.

There could be some underlying disagreement between Bill and Karen about the structure of their estate plan and how it will impact family members and disposition of the business. This, combined with their age and physical problems, could create communication challenges for their lawyer. Accordingly, it may be advisable to rely more on face-to-face meetings, followed by confirmatory written, hard copy letters

As with many ‘soft skills’ in the practice of law, incorporating client-centric capabilities into how one offers legal services is something that can be learned and perfected. It may require some changes in thinking, behaviour and priorities within a firm. Although many firms and lawyers already incorporate these approaches in their work, many will benefit from making this more of an organisational priority. As with most soft skills, the changes are subtle but can be significant, particularly in an increasingly competitive legal market.

Emily Morrow provides consulting services to lawyers, barristers, in-house counsel, law firms and barristers’ chambers.

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