What do lawyers sell?

The first time I heard Richard Susskind speak was at a Canadian Bar Association conference in Montreal in 2007. That was also the first time I heard one of the best parables about professional services ever told. I’ll try to paraphrase Richard’s delivery from memory:

“Black & Decker, the power tool company, had just hired a new CEO. He walked into his first meeting with his board of directors, held up a power drill, and asked, ‘Is this what we sell?’ The directors looked at each other and looked at the drill and said, ‘Yes, that’s one of ours; that’s what we sell.’ ‘No, it isn’t,’ replied the CEO, and he put down the drill and picked up a board with a hole in it. ‘This is what we sell,’ he said. ‘This is why the customer comes to us. This is what he wants.'”

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That’s a magnificent illustration of the best way, the only correct way, to look at the process of buying and selling anything — that is to say, from the buyer’s perspective. Given the legal profession’s struggles to cope with a newly evolving market — as exemplified by the shocking cuts and wholesale retrenchment of many large law firms recently — it seems like a good time to apply that question to lawyers.

What do lawyers sell? Ask 100 lawyers that question and you’ll get, not 100 different answers, but a very narrow range of familiar answers, repeatedly proffered. “I sell my time,” some lawyers will respond. “I sell my expertise,” others will reply. The MBA types: “I sell solutions.” The ones who’ve been paying attention: “I sell value.” The ones who haven’t been paying attention: “I sell excellence.”

None of these, however, is a good answer, because none of these are things that clients specifically need and that can be identifiably described.

  • Time: No one in history has ever bought or sold one second of time. It’s not a commodity in any sense of the word.
  • Expertise: No client needs legal expertise for its own sake. Specialized knowledge has only applied, not intrinsic, value.
  • Solutions: Getting closer, but this is a buzzword that’s meaningless without context. And not every legal matter is a “problem.”
  • Value: Closer again, but really, “value” isn’t much better than “solution” — it’s another way of saying, “I sell you what you want.” It’s circular.
  • Excellence: Must try harder.

There’s a better answer to that question, I think — one that unites the many incredibly disparate strands of legal services. There’s one response that can legitimately cover all the myriad needs of diverse legal clients — from getting a will made out to clearing up a tax issue, from overseeing a bankruptcy to managing a high-stakes acquisition, from defending an assault charge to gaining a permanent work visa, from enforcing a child support order to appealing the loss of a business licence.

That one answer is this: Lawyers sell peace of mind. This is what clients seek when they turn to a lawyer. This is their “hole in the board.”

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“Peace of mind” is what you get when you find someone with expertise, someone who’s excellent at what they do, someone who comes up with solutions to problems and avenues for opportunities — you find them, and you speak with them, and over the course of time, you come to trust them. You trust that they will help you, that they will use their skills to remove a worry, manage a process, or come up with an answer that has eluded you. That trust delivers peace of mind.

Almost every client, when he first contacts a lawyer, is legitimately anxious about something important. He’s worried, he’s not sleeping well, his emotional well-being is compromised. “Peace of mind” is what that client gets in that blessed moment when he can say to himself, “It’s alright. I’ve talked to a lawyer, and she’s given me options, and she’s working on the matter, and she’ll take care of it. Someone is looking after it, or will help me through it. I can start to relax now.” And he does.

Look at your own client relationships. Think about the most rewarding engagements, the most satisfied clients. Maybe they won their case, maybe not. Maybe the deal closed, maybe not. But in most cases, the clients who speak most highly of their lawyers are the ones to whom the lawyers gave the gift of peace of mind — the trustworthy assurance that someone is sharing their burden and helping get them to a place where the burden will be lifted.

Clients buy peace of mind — that’s what they want when they hire a lawyer. Gear everything about your practice — your first consultation, your personal manner, your client communications, your dependable prices, your transparent activities — towards increasing your trustworthiness and reliability and relieving your client’s worries and burdens. You will be a happy, successful lawyer with happy, satisfied clients.

Available now! My first two published books: Evolutionary Road (e-book published by Attorney At Work) and Content Marketing and Publishing Strategies for Law Firms (co-authored with Steve Matthews, published by The Ark Group). Click the links to learn more and order your copies today.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.  


  1. Ron Usher

    Good points Jordan. Years ago my law firm was called “Resolution Law Corporation”, much to the bewilderment of colleagues. I was trying to put the focus of the firm on the client’s desired experience, not my “personal brand”.


  2. Vivek

    Very insightful Article on real client deliveries.

  3. Peter Rouse

    I have some P’s to add to Peace of mind. Clients come to lawyers for Profit, Protection or Principle (or a combination of these). They want the lawyer’s Power to deliver these outcomes for them. All that remains is how much they can or are willing to Pay to get it.

  4. Peter Rouse

    I should have added that I am also author of ‘Every Relationship Matters’, published by ABA Publishing. Second edition coming soon…

  5. DC injury law firm

    Enjoyed this post. I hope there will be followups with examples of applying the “peace of mind” value proposition. Also, this “peace of mind” proposition is going to vary widely based upon the type of law the firm practices.


    ..very well put Jordan

    ..may I respectfully add (imho) that you have not emphasised enough the ‘sharing of the burden’ aspect of providing peace of mind..clients want to hand over all or most of the burden to a trusted professional to take the issue off their minds..’perhaps on the theory that a problem shared is a problem halved..

  7. Andy Clark

    This is great stuff Jordan. A few years ago I came to a similar conclusion and wanted to market my legal services as delivering peace of mind, but was told by “experts” at every turn that this wouldn’t work, was ridiculous, etc. Thanks for the validation!

  8. Martha

    That is exactly what I sell. The ability to sleep at night and enter the world with confidence. Great post!

  9. Bruce D.

    This is an excellent post! That is exactly what lawyers sell, very insightful. Thanks for sharing!

  10. This is an interesting and insightful blog, thank you. As a marketer by background, thinking ’emotional benefits’ rather than ‘functional features’ comes naturally to me because of my training. Lawyers are taught to think logically, reductively and focus on facts and evidence.

    People buy with their emotions and differentiation is something that law firms and lawyers need to create more of in an increasingly competitive and segmented market.

    I did a workshop recently with the practice group of a top Magic circle law firm, helping them to come up with a ‘verbal business card’. The group that was tasked to develop a line using emotional benefits found the task challenging. What is the best way in your view to help lawyers to understand the concept of people buying peace of mind? The concept can seem very alien and ‘soft and fluffy’ to lawyers!

  11. Taimoor Zafar

    I believe that this is what clients are looking for. My father was a successful lawyer because of the same strategy. This is the only way to make yourself different from other lawyers because they think that they sell time, expertise, smartness etc…

  12. Cirelo

    This should be my answer in our Law Entrance Exam.

  13. Jeff Carr

    Jordan – Rigth on point, as usual. The “peace of mind” of which you speak is, indeed, what lawyers sell — it is not, however, what today’s legal delivery service industry sells and depends upon. The latter sells hours — mnay of which neither need to be performed by lawyers, nor often need to be expended at all. This is because today’s legal serivce industry focuses primarily on the two quadrants of activity — process and content –which yields the most hours, as opposed to the two quadrants — advocacy and counselling –which require the lawyer’s unique skill set and distinquishing characteristic, yet yield far, far fewer hours. That uniquititude, that “secret sauce” of lawyerdom is judgment — and that’s what provides the customer the very peace of mind. In the advocacy quadrant — which tends to be reactive — fixing the problem that’s already arisen — peace comes from that cooly confident sense of “we’ll fix this — we”ll get through this” — from crisis management skillfuly navigated. In the counselling quadrant — which tends to be proactive — this is where the laywer’s skill set really shines. It is in this area where the skilled counsellor gives the customer the peace of mind of the problem not handled, but the problem avoided — the crisis not navigated, but circumnavigated altogether. As such, we need more counsellors, and fewer lawyers, and we need a legal delivery system where process and content is developed an delivered on time, on point and on budget without the inherent overworking and inefficiency driven by an hours driven industry. After all, when the customer pays for lawyers services by the hour, the customer buys hours, not peace of mind.

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