How clients really choose their lawyers

Roger Trapp reports on some surprising new research
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The Independent Online
Ask lawyers why they think a client chooses them over the opposition and they are likely to come out with such answers as standing in the legal community, international links and size of fees. But research recently published suggests they may be deluding themselves.

Admittedly, the study was conducted in New Zealand, where the legal environment - while common law - is arguably rather different from that in Britain or even the United States. But the findings do have some interest for people practising at this end of the world - and not just because of the curiously named categories into which the researchers divided the clients questioned.

Nick van der Walt, one of the team from Massey University that investigated the interaction between clients and their professional advisers, points out that it is "interesting" that law firm clients put understanding their business, past experience and the respect accorded advisers within the business community - as opposed to the legal fraternity - at the top of a list of 23 criteria.

Standing in the legal community ranked eighth, while competitive fees was only 10th. International links - much emphasised by firms of all sizes - was 21st, while knowing partners and/or staff socially fared only slightly better, languishing around the likes of recommendation by bank or auditor and parent company policy.

Within this overall picture there are obviously special concerns, and the researchers found enough distinguishing marks to identify three groups of client.

The first, accounting for 44 per cent of respondents, is described as "sanguine or demanding". Such clients were demanding about most selection criteria and were especially sensitive to their legal advisers' understanding of their business, respect for the law firm within both the business and the legal communities, area of specialisation, range of services, ability to cope with future needs and personal recommendation.

Next came "the personables", accounting for 41 per cent of respondents. These selected legal advisers on the basis of personal experiences, previous interactions, ready access to key staff, ready access to relevant partners in the law firm, partners or staff being well known to the company and a preference for particular individuals within the firm.

The last group, accounting for 15 per cent of the respondents, is labelled "the phlegmatics". As their name would suggest, they generally ranked the selection criteria far lower than those in the other two groups. But, as Professor van der Walt points out in his description of the research in Professional Marketing magazine, "interestingly, this did not impact on the subsequent evaluation of their legal advisers".

However, being tough appears to get results. The study finds that the more demanding the client, the higher the performance ratings they give to their advisers.

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