For years I have talked about the most sophisticated legal work being like brain surgery where clients look for the absolutely best possible person to do the work regardless of cost.  But now that I have been in the position of actually using a brain surgeon, I’ve found out that the analogy may be more appropriate than I thought.

There is a hierarchy of legal services within a law firm based on their sophistication.  At the base are commodity practices, defined as work that is assigned by clients primarily according to price.  Above pure commodity work is the every day routine work that makes up the bulk of what most law firms do.  Firms are not engaged solely on price at this level but it is recognized that any half decent general practice law firm could handle the matter equally well.  Then there is the work that is not extraordinarily sophisticated but important enough to clients that they generally want it handled by a lawyer with solid experience in similar matters.  Finally, there is the most sophisticated level that makes up perhaps the highest 10 percent of what a law firm does.  Some people call this “bet the company” work and it is expected that a client would search for the very best lawyer possible to handle the matter.  It is what I have called brain surgery – a patient only wants the very best doctor roaming around inside their skull.

Most law firms focus much of their strategic planning on moving their practice upstream so that their lawyers are doing more of the most sophisticated bet the company (brain surgery) work.  It pays the highest rates, carries the highest prestige and most lawyers consider it the most enjoyable work.  In the process, law firms make some assumptions about how clients select their brain surgery lawyers and build much of the implementation of their strategic plans around those assumptions.

As you might be aware, my wife had an aneurysm earlier this year for which she had a craniotomy (which is big time brain surgery).  So we actually did have to choose a brain surgeon.  I believe the experience provided me with some insights into the way clients choose lawyers to handle bet the company matters. Specifically, I observed three things:

  1. No client considers in advance who to use for a bet the company matter.  All the speeches and articles in the world are not going to reach the potential client.  When the earth shattering problem occurs every client becomes a deer in the headlights without a clue as to what to do next.  Clients with a bet the company problem are looking for a life preserver and the best lawyers exude the confidence that they have the problem handled.
  2. Clients don’t have time to go shopping for the best possible lawyer to work on their matter and, odds are, the issues are too confidential for them to solicit their peers as to possible candidates.  Typically, their primary lawyer refers them to a specialist to handle the problem and they go with the recommendation.  As serious as my wife’s problem was, we didn’t have the vaguest idea of how to seek alternative doctors to the neurosurgeon recommended by our doctor.  Moral:  if you want to be a bet the company lawyer, you don’t market to potential clients.  Instead, you direct your articles, speeches and personal contacts to the lawyers who are going to refer their clients.
  3. Clients confirm their choice.  When the dust settles, clients perform due diligence on their lawyer and, if they don’t like what they learn, they are likely to change counsel or, worse, question his actions at every turn.  After we met with the brain surgeon I spent a lot of time looking into his background.  It was reassuring that he was a specialist who primarily worked with aneurysms similar to my wife’s.  Moral:  you have to display the facts to give yourself credibility with clients.  It starts with the bio on the firm’s website that demonstrates your focus on the sophisticated practice area.  You can’t be all things to all people and expect to get the top end work.  Listings of on-topic speeches and articles help, too.

Maybe I’m stretching the analogy a little far with brain surgery, but I’ve talked to a number of business owners who had to find a specialty lawyer when they faced a hostile takeover, SEC investigation or union election.  It sounded like their experience was just like looking for a brain surgeon.

By the way, we chose correctly and my wife is recovering well.