I recently ran a cultural awareness training programme in Amsterdam for a group of senior associates from a number of different law firms who work in a ‘best friends’ alliance. There were lawyers present from the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, Germany, Italy, and the Czech Republic and the aim of the session was to both increase levels of cultural fluency within the delegate base and help foster more effective cross-border collaboration. One of the key issues I was asked to look at were law firm client expectations and how they differ across jurisdictions.
During the session I broke the group into teams by nationality and asked them to consider the following scenario:
- A lawyer from another country is coming to meet your key client in order to try to win some work. What are client expectations in your country? How do clients expect you to interact with them?
The lawyers were mainly M&A specialists or Real Estate experts who work with medium to large-sized clients so you might expect their responses around client expectations to be pretty similar from country to country. After all, clients all want the same thing, don’t they? Apparently not!
There were, of course, a number of similarities around client expectations amongst the various jurisdictions but there were definitely more differences than similarities.
So, What Were the Similarities in Law Firm Client Expectations?
- Clients in all these jurisdictions present expect lawyers to honour their commitment. They expect them to do what they say they will do
- Deadlines seemed to be critical everywhere and if a deadline looked like it might be missed all clients expected to be kept informed
- Clarity in terms of fees was, not surprisingly, a key client concern in all jurisdictions
- All clients expect the legal advice they receive to be of the highest quality and ‘correct’
Keith Warburton, Global Business Culture CEO
All the above are pretty standard fare and all law firms would pride themselves on meeting these client expectations. If all good law firms match these client expectations, where are the differentiators? What makes one firm stand out against another?
There can only really be two differentiators – price and the quality of personal interaction or chemistry. No-one wants to compete on price alone so that leaves law firms with an imperative to interact super-effectively on an interpersonal level and to do that you need to understand your client expectations.
Understanding client expectations in your own country is difficult enough but effective interpersonal collaboration in a foreign culture is even more challenging. So, what are client expectations at an interpersonal level in different countries – this is what the senior associates said about their own jurisdictions:
- Clients expect a degree of informality in meetings and this is reflected in the use of first names at all times
- There should be some small talk about non-business-related topics at the start of a meeting, but this should not take up too much time
- It is important to be calm at all time – enthusiasm is met with suspicion
- All participants at a meeting are expected to speak regardless of their seniority – otherwise, why are you there?
- It is important to research the client company in advance of the meeting to be aware of the latest developments at the company or in the sector
- When asked a question, cut to the chase quickly. Overly diplomatic or long-winded responses are not respected or expected
- Discussions on timelines are critical and agreed deadlines should always be met – if they cannot be met enough warning must be given
- Communication is expected to be very direct
- Written advice must be concise and to the point – bullet points are preferred
- Language differences need to be acknowledged and respected. As a dual-language (well actually a tri-language country) linguistic and cultural tensions are never far from the surface
- Belgians expect to be approached in a diplomatic manner and diplomacy is not seen as suspicious but rather as paying attention to people’s feelings
- Belgium itself is in many ways a compromise and therefore Belgian clients expect and respect people’s ability to find a compromise solution – pushing your own opinion or views too strongly will probably backfire
- Written advice should be pragmatic and to the point
- Agreeing clear timelines is critical and lawyers are expected to keep to these pre-agreed deadlines
- Junior lawyers tend not to speak much in meetings – unless they are specifically asked their views (but this rarely happens)
- Lunch is important and business may, or may not, be discussed at lunch – take your lead from the client
- Always be on time – although it’s a stereotype it is very important. Punctuality is a sign of professionalism. If you can’t be trusted to arrive on time, why would I trust you with complex legal problems?
- Preparation is vital. Clients expect lawyers to arrive fully prepared having done all the necessary ‘homework’ in advance. German clients are detail-oriented so the preparation should consist of detailed analysis and you are expected to arrive at a meeting with all the potentially necessary information
- Hierarchy must be respected in terms of who speaks and who listens – so the bulk of the discussions would be between the senior people present on both sides with more junior people being asked to participate when necessary to provide specific information
- Any relevant information should be forwarded in advance of a meeting to give the client the opportunity to study it and ask any relevant questions at the meeting. No surprises is the preferred approach
- If you agree to a deadline it should be met. Meeting deadlines is a critical sign of professional competence
- This is a country where Western Europe meets Eastern Europe, and this will have a big impact in terms of determining client expectations. Is this a local company or the subsidiary of a foreign capital company? Expect different corporate cultures in each of these types of organisation
- In addition, you are likely to encounter generational issues. Older clients who were raised and educated during the former Soviet system are likely to behave in a very different manner to younger clients who do not share that legacy
- Lawyers are expected to act modestly, and foreign lawyers need to guard against seeming to be arrogant and disrespectful to the Czech Republic
- It is important to show a level of interest in the Czech Republic and its history – Czechs are very proud of their history
- In some ways building trust and showing respect for the country is as important as performance
- Lawyers are expected to be well-prepared for meetings
- Junior lawyers only speak in meetings when asked to do so and the role of a junior lawyer is usually that of note-taker
- Clients expect a lawyer to know exactly what the client does
- It is important to have some knowledge of the client as a person and this goes beyond the role they undertake at work. Personal issues are important and are discussed
- When dealing with clients you need to know who the decision-maker is and show respect to that person
- Interruptions at meeting are commonplace and not viewed negatively
- Everybody wants to speak at a meeting – very often at the same time
- Clients increasingly expect fixed or capped fees
- It is very difficult to talk about the ‘country’ business culture when almost 50% of the population do not originate in Luxembourg
- The culture of Luxembourg is ‘cosmopolitan’
- Lawyers need to find out in advance where each specific client originally comes from and react accordingly
- It is best to match languages – if the client is German take a German speaker; if they are Chinese have a Mandarin speaking colleague attend
- Clients expect very concise advice overall (but could vary by nationality of the client)
- Law firm clients’ expecations are more difficult to pin down in Luxemburg than in many other countries
- Best advice – do lots of research in advance on the background of the individual you are meeting
So, there are lots of differences by country in terms of how clients need to be treated and any good international lawyer will factor these issues into their interpersonal engagements. As you can imagine, there were lots of questions around these issues and a good deal of surprise expressed at the depth of the differences outlined but the thing that most amazed the lawyers in the room was how different client expectations were between the Netherlands and Belgium. They share a border but contrast so strongly.
This is a very quick sketch of some of the points raised by the lawyers at my cultural awareness training programme but lots of other issues were raised as well. What all of this shows is that when dealing with a client from a different jurisdiction, you really do need to do some homework on the local business culture. If you don’t know how to interact effectively in key initial meetings you could be throwing away your key differentiator.
One lesson to take from this is to never confuse geographic proximity with cultural proximity – they very rarely go hand-in-hand. Law firm clients’ expectations need to be understood if client satisfaction is to be gained.