Sometimes lawyers fall short their efforts to bring in business, despite their technical skills. While it may be counterintuitive, approaching potential clients with vulnerability can be far more successful than adopting a battleground mentality.
It can be tempting for lawyers to see themselves as hired advocates who speak and do battle on another’s behalf. This view feeds the ego, as it implies strength, persistence, conquest and invulnerability. That last adjective brings me to the topic for this column: not invulnerability but vulnerability.
The word originates in classical Latin: vulnus, meaning "wound." The vulnerable can be wounded, whereas the invulnerable cannot. Nowadays, people toss around the word almost to the point of cliché, but vulnerability seems to imply a sort of emotional defenselessness. While "invulnerable" implies a kind of impregnable aggression, "vulnerable" indicates the opposite: a lack of pretense, aggression and attitude, and a certain openness to others, to experience and to emotion.
In old Hollywood, the ideal leading man was indeed invulnerable, portraying the qualities most prized in the contemporary culture. Think of square-jawed Clark Gable or lumbering John Wayne. A certain amount of that tradition still seems to exist in the culture of law, notwithstanding the influx of women into the field over the last 25 years.
In that 25 years, the practice of law has become as much about signing up and retaining clients as it is about providing excellent representation. The ability to express authentic qualities of vulnerability is valuable, perhaps even crucial, to that process.
At this point, the reader might think that this article will launch into a reflection on caring. Lawyers must care about what they do and for whom they do it, but the marketplace has grown weary of lawyers who loudly claim to care. Everyone knows that lawyers provide a highly complex service and that they do it for a fee. What potential clients seem to want to know, beyond the primordial question: "Do you care for me?" is: "Who are you?"
All business relationships, whether between a giant oil company and a multinational firm or between a small trucking company and a three-lawyer shop, begin with person-to-person contact.
In this moment, when the potential client sees a glimpse into the relationship’s future, the client decides where to send his business. Whether it goes to the person before him or to some other legal-services provider rests in part on the lawyer’s skills and strategies on display. But skills and strategies — and fee structure — are only part of the story. The rest is making human contact with the potential client.
A lawyer who believes that getting the business is all about homing in on a signed contract for representation has failed to display the one thing the client needs to know: Does the lawyer care about signing the contract or about the client’s legal problem?
In "Zen in the Art of Archery" author Eugene Herrigel describes a trip to Japan to apprentice in archery, one of the several arts practiced to refine and enhance meditation. Whether calligraphy, pottery or archery, the art’s purpose is not the end result but rather the activity itself. The process, not the product, is paramount.
Herrigel struggles with the notion that the goal is not striking the target on the hay bale but rather is, with great care, perfectly executing the motions leading to the arrow’s release. To his dismay, he finds the bow to be so long that he can’t hold the arrow at eye level and aim. Rather, he must hold it overhead and draw the arrow without sighting the target. This seems so antithetical his Western, goal-oriented mind that his sensei one point threatens to discharge him from the apprenticeship.
After much struggle, Herrigel at last lets go of his need to hit the target and begins to focus on the preparations for the arrow’s flight. In the end, he realizes he will not leave Japan as an archery master but as one perpetually in training. When he accepts that, he sees this realization as the road to true mastery.
How perfect this is as an analogy for the process of securing new business. The lawyer must become vulnerable to the target, connect with it emotionally and become one with it before letting fly the arrow. He know that he cannot govern the arrow’s flight but, the more perfect is his preparation, the closer the arrow will land to the target.
The vulnerability at play here is the ability to take in the true, troubling nature of the potential client’s legal problems. That same vulnerability will allow the lawyer to understand more clearly what is a solvable legal problem and what assistance she can offer. It also may help her discern what may be a hidden agenda for wrongdoing.
When the client observes the lawyer’s authentic grasp of the matter’s difficulties, rather than a false performance of caring, he may well decide he’s found his attorney. He experiences a lawyer who arrives empty, the only goal being to connect and arrive at an accurate grasp of the legal problems under discussion. The lawyer understands and accepts, a priori, that the retention decision is not his to make; his only task is to be vulnerable to the client’s difficulties and to reflect that.
In this way, the lawyer draws the bow, breathing slowly and deeply, and lets fly the arrow when he states, "I would welcome the opportunity to help you with that matter."
If he has prepared the shot correctly, with great care and attentiveness, empty of expectation, then there is a very great likelihood the arrow will find its mark.