Private practice lawyers learn to play many roles. One role that many people seem hesitant to acknowledge is the role of salesman. Like it or not, if you want to make a living in the private sector representing human beings, it is imperative that people want to hire you. To do that, you must occasionally play the role of salesman.
I am no salesman. It isn’t in my genes, I haven’t gone to great lengths to develop any sales skills, and quite honestly, the idea of selling things to people, even if it’s something I believe in, makes me feel a tad bit icky. I acknowledge I must sell my services to stay afloat in this profession, but I generally do that by sticking with one basic principle. It’s the one that makes me feel the least icky.
I am the product I’m selling. Constrained only by my own natural abilities and the number of hours in each day I am capable of devoting to improving on those, I have absolute control over the quality of my product. Improving what I’m selling so it hopefully sells itself is the best way to increase sales. It’s better than making some false claims on a website, though perhaps slower to show a financial return on investment.
Unfortunately, clients don’t hire based on legal skills alone. For the most part, they don’t have the requisite knowledge to meaningfully assess legal skills at all. Even lawyers who don’t practice in my specific area usually don’t have enough understanding to tell a good criminal defense lawyer from a bad one.
Clients sometimes look to things like the lawyer’s car, the lawyer’s clothing, or the lawyer’s office. They don’t want a lawyer who’s spilled chocolate milkshake on his oversized hand-me-down suit and smells like the elephant cage at the zoo. Riding a BMX bike to your office on the corner stool of a dive bar is no way to impress a potential client, even if you’re a great lawyer. Habits can be important too.
Occasionally, I see something that reminds me that lawyers are products. As products, we should not only refine the skills that enable us to achieve our intended purpose, but we should also consider how we present ourselves. I thought about that after I got an email containing this fabulous photo of International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his expensive lawyer:
I don’t practice in New York. I’ve never met that lawyer. I imagine he does a fine job considering his list of clientele, but the glance from his client is so wonderfully skeptical that my first inclination is to doubt him.
I expect he’s just the victim of an unfortunate photo. I feel bad for the guy, but nail-biting is such a fantastically expressive thing that it completely colors my impression of him. You could pull up to your billion-dollar office in a Bugatti Veyron wearing a suit made of solid gold thread, and I’d be suspicious if you started biting your nails. I’d probably look a lot like Mr. Strauss-Kahn looks. It just isn’t a good habit, especially not in the middle of a hearing.
That picture reminded me that any product improvement on the part of a lawyer needs to be comprehensive. You can still focus primarily on increasing the quality of services you provide, but you should also remember not to bite your nails or engage in any other bad habits that might reflect poorly on you. It doesn’t look good. It might cost you business.
It doesn’t seem like it’s hurt Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s attorney, but then again, he and I aren’t exactly in the same situation. I suspect his product isn’t too hard to sell at this point in his career. As for me, I think I’m going to go shine my shoes and drop my suits off at the dry cleaner’s.