The trusted advisor

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My collection of prized possessions is extremely small — the feature item is probably a ticket stub from Game 6 of the 1993 World Series (Joe Carter’s home run off Mitch Williams). Among that narrow collection, you’ll find a personally inscribed copy of David Maister’s last book, Strategy and the Fat Smoker, and if your passion is making the legal services marketplace better for both lawyers and clients (as mine is), you’ll understand why. A remarkable number of very successful lawyers and law firm leaders have a copy of one of David’s groundbreaking books, such as True Professionalism or Managing the Professional Services Firm or The Trusted Advisor (co-authored with Charles H. Green and Robert M. Galford), on their bookshelves. His status in law practice management circles can fairly be called institutional, and unfortunately for us, the new year has brought word of the institution’s closure: David is retiring from consulting, speaking and writing on professional service delivery.

My own interactions with David Maister have been only glancing — he contributed a fine article to a College of Law Practice Management e-zine on innovation that I edited in 2006, and he generously gave me a credit in his last book for some very slight suggestions I contributed. But his influence on me and his impact on a generation of legal professionals have been profound — not only through his practical guidance and his contributions to a rational law practice business model, but for the principles he constantly advanced as essential to excellent professional service. David exhorted lawyers and accountants to stay true to the highest standards of trustworthiness and ethics and to focus relentlessly on serving the client’s best interests. Early in True Professionalism, he writes:

A true professional feels no pressure to run up a client’s bill, knowing that any reduction in revenues caused by being efficient will be more than recompensed by the reputation earned for being honest and trustworthy. A provider that is not efficient in spending the client’s money soon loses the client’s trust and confidence. Is this an ethical point or a “good business” point? Of course, it is both. …

Evoking the moral argument is not necessary, although it’s still the real one. One should be efficient not only because it’s good business, but because it’s the right thing to do. Doing the right thing is good business! Yet one still hears the argument in professional service firms that “I know what I’m doing could be done by a less costly person, but if I delegate it to someone who charges less than I do, our revenues will go down.” Do people making this argument need a lesson in business or a lesson in professional ethics? …

When you accept an assignment from a client, good supervision is not optional. Rather, diligence in supervising a client’s transaction is an ethical issue, a matter of responsibility for due care. It’s about professional responsibility and true professionalism. The fact that it’s the high-profit thing to do is wonderful, but you should do it because it’s the right thing to do.

Keep in mind, when reading this, that David is speaking directly to his client base — the professionals who engage him for his consulting services — about what does and does not constitute good conduct on their part. He’s speaking truth to power, and the courage that requires is often underestimated, not to mention in short supply. How many of us in the legal profession feel comfortable saying things like this in public anymore? This is not an excerpt from an ancient tome — True Professionalism was published in 1997 — yet it feels like ages since I’ve read anyone make a powerful case that serving your clients’ best interests in your business practices is the correct moral choice and is justified for that reason alone. Sure, there’s a business case for running a client-focused practice, but if you really need a business case for that, you’re in the wrong line of work.

We need to remind ourselves about the central importance of service and trustworthiness in law practice, especially now that the fundamentals of the legal service marketplace are changing under our feet. For one thing, there’s going to be a wave of new providers from outside the legal profession taking clients’ business, and lawyers will require a competitive response. One of those responses needs to be that lawyers are committed to the complete engagement of the client and the client’s interests and are fully invested in business practices that put those interests first. Alternative legal service providers won’t always be able to make that claim; lawyers need to be able to make it every single time, or we’ll lose our ability to differentiate ourselves as “trusted advisors” and still have that phrase mean something.

Even more importantly, trust and professional commitment are the keys to lawyers’ survival now that the traditional rules by which law has been practised are being blown apart. Alternative fee arrangements require a partnership between the lawyer and the client, one based on trust that each will safeguard the other’s interests and that the lawyer in particular will work diligently on files in the absence of a direct link between effort and payment. Collaboration, the key to successful interactions with colleagues, clients and other counsel from here on out, is simply not possible for those who won’t share and who habitually put themselves first. Talented lawyers will continue to gravitate to firms that trust their lawyers to do good work without counting hours and that are willing to share the pain in bad times, while firms that fire staff, cut associates and de-equitize partners whenever the going gets rough will increasingly struggle. It was quite possible, under the old model, to operate an exploitative, me-first law practice and still turn a profit; I think it’s going to be seriously difficult to manage that from now on.

That’s why David’s retirement is a moment to pause and consider the central importance of his work to current and future generations of lawyers and clients. Extremely few lawyers have completely abandoned our professional ideals; but not enough of us have made them the uncompromising core of our day-to-day businesses. Not enough of us are willing to carve into our organizational cornerstones the principle that we will always strive to do the right thing — for no other reason than that doing right is what we’re here for. That kind of commitment is the source of the admiration that many people used to have for lawyers and that, if we make the right choices in the decade to come, they will again.

We’ve become a profession in search of purpose and identity; I strongly suggest we listen closely to those, like David, who insisted lawyers’ purpose and identity resides in service and trustworthiness, and act accordingly.

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One Response to “The trusted advisor”

  1. martin tilson

    It was good of you to revisit David Maister and the valuable advice he has shared over the years. I had the pleasure of hiring David for a two day strategic planning sesion for our firm where I was also marketing partner. He is always candid and talks straight. None of the typical consulting mumbo jumbo. The session went so well that we invited`him to our annual partner’s retreat and he was a hit. He simplifies the art of client service and business development, and he may be the best advisor of an indistry I have met. As our legal industry transitions in the next few years, and law firms have to adjust their business models to what the market demands in measureable , cost effective service, it would be wise to re-read David’s books. Both a gentleman and a scholar, he deserves a delightful retirement but the profession will miss one of the brightest observers of best prcatices. What a pleasure to have worked with him and learned along the way.

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