The NAB Professional Service Awards in conjunction with FirmChecker, sister company of Beaton Research + Consulting recently released a blog entitled “Best lawyers: What makes them great”. Using data from client surveys taken as part of the 2017 awards, it looks at how frequently clients mentioned a firm’s strengths. The data presented is simple, but therein lies its power.

Strengths mentioned are divided into three categories – ‘fees’ (fee certainty’ and ‘low fees’), ‘hard skills’ (which includes ‘quality of advice and results’, ‘expertise’ and ‘fast service’) and ‘soft skills’ (including ‘effective communication’, ‘proactive service’ and ‘reliability’). The picture painted is a stark one, with ‘fees’ achieving only 2% of all mentions, ‘hard skills’ appearing in 33% of responses and ‘soft skills’ appearing in 65%. Put briefly, when asked “what did your law firm do particularly well in the most recent matter completed for you?, clients are twice as likely to mention a soft skill as a hard skill.
‘Perception is reality’ goes the saying, meaning that the way clients see their reality is their truth. It’s that truth that we, as service providers, must understand and accommodate. So, how do these survey results inform the work I do as Managing Partner at CIE Legal? What does it tell me about where we focus our resources and attention?

First, it tells me that the so-called ‘soft skills’ are either more valued or noticed more often by clients than ‘hard skills’ overall, which at first blush seems somewhat surprising. After all, if isn’t it the case that provided the advice is right, who cares how it’s delivered? These results suggest that this is not the case. Of course, the advice has to be right but what remains at the end of a matter or a project isn’t just the result itself, but also the perception, the feeling left with the client. It seems that ‘soft skill’ strengths linger longer or deeper than ‘hard skills’.

Reflecting on the meaning of the strengths led me to the second point: that the distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills is really an arbitrary one. ‘Quality of advice and results’, for example, don’t exist in a vacuum. They are the result of the ‘hard skill’ of technical expertise combined with numerous ‘soft skills’ such as effective communication, reliability and professionalism. Delivering one without the other is not an option. So, yes, while we do focus on service delivery at CIE Legal, we don’t lose sight of the need for our advice to be spot-on.

Third, the results speak to our culture of ‘value, decency and enjoyment’. When I look at the list of strengths, it strikes me how much easier it is to deliver so many of them when working in an environment of openness, trust, enjoyment and decency. It seems to me that a happy place to work is a prerequisite for delivering friendliness’, ‘professionalism’ and ‘effective communication’.

As other Managing Partners will attest, the role is not an easy one and even the most strident Managing Partner at times, questions their approach. They wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t. So it’s doubly valuable when independent feedback supports what we do. Even though many of us know the importance of ‘soft skills’ deep-down, it’s always valuable to see it in black and white (or blue and red). My take-away? Quality of advice and results is still king. But it can’t be delivered without ‘soft skills’, and ‘soft skills’ can’t be delivered without the right culture. Ultimately, it comes down to one thing: build an enjoyable place to work and the rest will come.

And as to only 2% of mentions being about fees – clearly we aren’t charging enough (joking)”

Peter George
Managing Partner
CIE Legal

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