Law Practice Today: Why Does a Client Choose a Particular Lawyer?

Law Practice Today | December 2010

Why Does a Client Choose a Particular Lawyer? ShareThis
By Steven Shaer


When retaining a lawyer, clients, whether an individual or a corporation, do not make simple competency-based decisions. Regardless of what they are buying, all consumers make decisions based on rational buying criteria, emotional buying criteria and, in some cases, even social buying criteria.

Does this sound familiar? "I can't understand why I didn't get that client. I am clearly more competent than the lawyer they ended up choosing and no more expensive!" As a consultant, trainer and coach who teaches lawyers how to build practices, my clients and other lawyers often ask me these kinds of questions. The answer is that whether the client is an individual or a corporation, when retaining a lawyer, clients do not make simple competency based decisions.

Regardless of what they are buying, all consumers, including legal clients, make decisions based on rational buying criteria, emotional buying criteria and, in some cases, even social buying criteria. What do I mean by this? When retaining a lawyer, prospective clients don't simply do a weighted calculation of the pros and cons of a particular choice based on a set of facts and quantitative factors and then make a decision. There are many more factors at play. I call these the non-rational factors of emotional and social criteria. Every client makes their purchasing decision based on some mix of these factors. Some clients are more rational, some more emotional or social but no client is either 100% rational or 100% non-rational in their decision-making.

Rational buying criteria

First, what are rational buying criteria? Rational buying criteria are the criteria that can be quantified. For example, whether or not a lawyer has a certain board certification, specific expertise that can be demonstrated, or any other quality that can be confirmed by a third party that makes that lawyer a good fit for a client can be considered rational criteria. More specifically, if a corporate lawyer specializes in a certain M&A transaction and a client is looking for representation for that specific kind of transaction, the lawyer may be able to point to a whole host of credentials to prove his or her experience, such as "tombstone" announcements of deals the lawyer has closed, years of experience, articles written or speaking engagements given on those transactions or issues, clients the lawyer has served in the same industry with the same needs, price (billing rates, time budgets), etc. All of these items are rational buying criteria. They appeal to the potential client's rational mind. If the client were making a decision based purely on rational criteria, these factors would be all that would matter.

The client’s perspective

Before we even get into the non-rational factors that come into play, there is an important fallacy to remember in all of this: even if the lawyer has the most experience in a particular area, the prospective client may not understand or appreciate those credentials or why they are important. While it may be clear to the lawyer, it may not be clear to the client. Communication is only about what the listener hears and understands, not what is presented to them.

It is important to always communicate to clients and prospective clients in terms that they understand and not in legal or industry terms or even general business terms unless you are sure that the client knows and understands those terms. The best credentials in the world are useless unless your clients and prospective clients understand them! The most logical argument in the world won’t stand up it if is not well articulated, and more importantly, well understood by the listener.

Emotional, non-rational buying criteria

What I call the emotional, non-rational buying criteria are intangibles that factor into decision making. What are emotional intangibles? They are things like how compatible the client's personality is with yours. Does the client believe that you are sympathetic to them? Do they believe that you will give them good service--do they feel confident in you? Do they like you? Do you have shared values? This is about what clients feel about you, not what they can quantifiably measure. Aren't many of the most financially successful lawyers you know masters of having strong and positive client perceptions of competence and strong client connections even if their technical competence is somewhat less than less than that of their competitors? You must never underestimate the emotional factors because in many instances, retaining a lawyer is an emotional decision. It is often about conflict, taking risks and transferring control and it is often simply about change - all of which can stir up emotions in people.

Social buying criteria

Social criteria in decision making often comes into play when legal selections are evaluated and decided by a potential client. Is one lawyer a more socially acceptable choice? Is one firm more prestigious than another? Will retaining this firm reflect particularly well upon the client among friends and business associates? Will hiring a less prestigious firm, despite the competency in a particular area, reflect poorly upon the client with friends and business associates? Is one lawyer a member of the client’s country club? Will it be difficult for the client to see that lawyer in the club if the lawyer doesn’t get the case? Is one lawyer related to the client or a friend, which might create an uncomfortable situation if that lawyer doesn’t receive the business? Social factors come into play in decision making when the relationships between and around the prospective client and the lawyer are important. Sometimes, there is a greater level of trust as a result of these relationships. Other times, these relationships create social pressure on a decision.

Social criteria imply a two-way street. There is both social pressure to use a certain lawyer and assumed social pressure for the lawyer to do as good a job as possible for the client. If the client chooses a lawyer who is also a member of the client’s country club, it will be difficult for the lawyer not to be responsive to the client’s calls when the lawyer will have to face the client on the golf course over the weekend. Furthermore, if the lawyer performs badly for the client, the lawyer is likely to realize (hopefully!) that it will reflect poorly on them socially when word of their poor performance gets around.

Balancing rational and non-rational buying criteria

It is important to remember that even when non-rational buying criteria come into play, clients do not make choices completely in opposition to the rational criteria. Often, clients may not retain the most objectively qualified lawyer in favor of a lawyer who is somewhat less qualified as a result of non-rational factors. Every buying decision every consumer makes incorporates these rational and non-rational criteria in a mixture based on the circumstances and the moment. Clients do not completely disregard the rational; rational factors are only one part of the equation.

It has been said by researches in consumer behavior that buying decisions are primarily made based on non-rational factors supported by rational factors. Decisions are made for non-rational reasons but rational reasons are then used to support the decision. This is done by mentally changing the weighting factors on the rational criteria to support the emotional decision. For example, if you ask a friend or colleague why he or she didn't make what appears to be the logical purchase decision, they will most often be able to give you what appears to be the rational justification even if the decision was really made for purely emotional reasons. They will bend the rational criteria to fit what they want to do for whatever reason they want to do it. Prospective clients will do this too. Never underestimate the human mind's ability to rationalize! They will find a way! In building your practice, you need to get in front of the way prospective clients make decisions.

When communicating with prospective clients, you need to tap into these non-rational buying criteria just as you need to make a case for your competence by tapping into the client’s rational buying criteria. You need to make prospective clients comfortable working with you. You need to be likeable. You need to be sympathetic. You need to understand your clients’ fears and issues and you need to address them. You need to understand the social factors that are in play and to exploit them or, at least, minimize their importance if you can’t exploit them. Prospective clients have to know you are in sync with them from both a rational and non-rational perspective. If these skills do not come naturally, you need to cultivate them. They are critical to business development success.
About the Author

Steven J. Shaer is a management consultant and trainer and is a principal of Shaer Associates, a management consulting and training firm that specializes in teaching lawyers how to build successful practices. He can be found at
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