I first heard this apparently well-known phrase about selecting lawyers a month ago when my friend Doug Levinson used it in describing how clients select lawyers. The phrase struck me as inherently true, but also so cynical that it should mostly be said behind closed doors. Still, because it is true, when lawyers present themselves, they need to actually or subliminally convey a clear message about which two qualities they generally offer.
Let’s examine these characteristics one at a time, in the context of lawyers and legal services.
Fast: Regarding legal work, “fast” is not determined by hours, days or weeks. Fast in legal work means efficient, and efficient varies by assignment.
Lawyers are efficient in three main ways. The most obvious way is through experience. When a particular project is one a lawyer or firm has seen before it can be done efficiently: the lawyer or firm has leased warehouses similar to the one you need to lease, litigated employment clauses like the one in dispute, or sold a manufacturing company like the one you are now selling. The second path to efficiency is through raw brain power. The best transactional lawyers for new types of deals are the ones whose brains have moments of engineering genius. Such abilities are born, not made. Finally, there is size. Intricate work demands layered lawyering, and cannot be done well without a sizable team. One or two people can never pump out a work product best done by a team of a dozen or more, because the larger team creates efficiency. It is worth remembering, however, that most legal work is not intricate.
Good: The best legal work often looks seamless, and perhaps simple, to clients – clear contracts, with well delineated issues written with a minimum of jargon; litigations won on motion practice; tax liabilities avoided by planning, timing, and categorization.
Good legal work does not announce itself. When things go well, the results of good legal work can look similar to the results of mediocre, or even bad, legal work. But when things go south, clients count their lucky stars if they had contingencies covered and damages predetermined. Why litigate when you can draft? And if you must litigate, why be in unnecessary mire?
Cheap: It is easy to forget that “cheap” is a word with two non-overlapping meanings. Cheap has both a morally neutral and morally pejorative meaning. In its neutral form, cheap means inexpensive, but still of good quality. In its derogatory form, it describes imprecise, and often harmful, corner-cutting. When legal services are called cheap, it is usually a compliment. Someone who wants or needs to shop for legal services by price can find a “cheap” lawyer who will get an adequate job done for an affordable price. The work may not be superb, but legal protections will be adequate.
So which two do you offer? If you are good enough, try to satisfy your client’s preferences. Sometimes you can ask which two the client wants, but not crassly. When do you need this? What is your budget? Do you need to cover all contingencies or prepare for all possibilities?
Most lawyers have a standard duo they deliver, but it sometimes varies. If you can do certain work fast and inexpensively because for you it is routine, say so. If you are asked to do something outside of your standard repertoire, you can then say it will be high quality (if you are smart), but it will not be fast because you need to think through issues that are new to you.
It is easy to know your cost for services, and not too hard to find out how they compare to others. If you do good work for a fair price, you can consider yourself “cheap” in the best sense. (See my earlier blog, “Very Good Can Be Good Enough.” )
Feel free to consider your work “fast” for projects where you do not have to recreate the wheel, for things where your natural abilities lie, or on items where you can work a team and divide the work efficiently.
You can claim your work is good when it has stood the test of time and reputation. If others believe your work is of high quality, ask those you have satisfied if you may quote them. Tout your public successes, and announce respect from the well respected.
Although on rare occasion a lawyer’s work may be good, fast and cheap, when it is all three it is simple work. Decide which two are your general strong suits and make them known when discussing your value to clients.