We Judge You Based on What We Understand

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Ethiopian Airlines is getting the job done. We’re arriving at the right destination and in one piece. It’s good enough. If it wasn’t for their service, I’d have seen far less of Ethiopia, because driving here on rough roads is slow going.

The airline is getting us from A to B one way or another. We’ve taken five flights with Ethiopian and each of them has been impacted by a minor glitch. The departure isn’t always on time, two of our flights were rescheduled, another was consolidated with a different flight, and one occasion we made a brief, unexpected stop along the way.

I’m not complaining. I’m not one those flyers who gets disgruntled when the WiFi doesn’t work or the beverage service is suspended due to turbulence. I go with the flow and read my book.

Little mistakes lead to worry about big mistakes

But the little things–the rescheduled departure time, the delays, the inaccurate information from the gate agent, the unexpected stop, the late arrival–they undermine confidence.

The little things, while technically inconsequential, make me wonder about the bigger things which I can’t see, don’t understand, and worry might impact safety. The little things are the only things I understand, and when they go wrong it’s easy for me to speculate that the bigger, more important, mission-critical things might go wrong as well.

Five flights so far and we’ve landed safely each and every time. There was never an airborne moment of anxiety. They got us where we were going. The airline knows how to move people from one place to another. They’re getting the big things right.

Delays, spelling errors, canceled meetings diminish trust

Your clients focus on the little things too. They notice when their names are misspelled. They pay attention when a pleading says “he” instead of “she” or vice-versa. They get agitated when Plaintiff and Defendant are mislabeled.

They wonder why their meeting is rescheduled. They get concerned when the receptionist didn’t expect them, or doesn’t have the papers ready for pickup, or has to scramble around to figure out how to accept a payment.

The little glitches, the tiny missteps, the easy mistakes–these things diminish trust. Like a sharp airplane propeller blade, they cut through the confidence you’ve worked to build. They leave you with a client doubting your advice, wondering whether you really understand their cause, and dubious about whether you’re on their side.

The little things, the things clients understand entirely, are the linchpin of the relationship. No matter how many big things you get right, no matter how brilliant your legal argument, no matter how artfully drafted your pleadings and briefs–it’s the misspelling of a name that breaks the relationship, undermines trust, and destroys confidence.

We think of the big things as our work

We expend great quantities of energy getting the big things right. We fly to Las Vegas to hear the big name speakers at the continuing education program. We apprentice under the famous trial lawyer. We read the journals, keep up with the recent cases, and drop by to hear top lawyers conducting oral arguments.

We hire the best associates and assistants. We buy the latest technology. We carefully build out reference files of related cases, comprehensive forms, and up-to-date databases of expert witnesses. We expend endless energy on the big things because we know they’re important.

But are the big things the most important things?

Getting the big things right is essential. But for many of us, it’s not where the client game is won or lost. The little things typically carry more weight with many of our clients. They want the date of birth to be right. They want the envelope addressed properly. They want the call returned promptly.

But that’s not what the clients think

Clients use the little things as a proxy for the things they don’t understand. Many aren’t sufficiently educated or equipped to judge the quality of your legal work, so they judge the things they are capable of comprehending.

Noticing that clients judge you with criteria different from that which we use to judge one another is enlightening. It’s why you sometimes see great reviews online for “bad” lawyers. These lawyers can’t get it right in the courtroom no matter how hard they try. But they spell the names right, they pay attention to things clients understand, and they do their utmost to keep the trust they’ve earned. They’re playing a different game, using the client’s criteria, and winning all the points that matter to the people paying their bills.

Your mission, of course, is to do the legal work right. You have a professional obligation to perform at a high level. But more important–at least to your reputation among clients–is the obligation to understand how they judge you, what matters to them, and what builds their trust and confidence. With that knowledge, you can do an impeccable job on the work that matters to them. You’re able to keep their trust, and they’ll feel confident that you’re getting the legal work done right, too.

Take off on time, and we trust that you’re flying the plane properly. Spell our name right and we trust that you’re doing the legal work properly.

It’s frustrating when we’re judged on the little things. It’s even more frustrating when we know how little they matter to the ultimate outcome of the case. But to the client, they may be the only things that matter. That means they must matter to you.

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