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We should see our clients in their native habitat

I recently read a newspaper story in which a doctor talked about her reaction when she happened to meet a patient at an airport, where the patient worked. The patient was out of the context of the examining room and the doctor was taken aback, at first not recognizing the patient. The experience of seeing the patient as an individual in a work environment gave the doctor an entirely new perspective on this person, to the point of considering changes in treatment.

How often do we, as lawyers, see our clients in their native habitat? What kinds of information might we gather, informal and perhaps even unspoken, that would dramatically alter the advice we provide? In many cases, quite a bit! Yet, not many lawyers take the time to visit clients and really get to know more about them, their work and family environments, and the possible impact of legal advice on these aspects of clients’ lives.

Clients do not need to be persuaded of the expertise of you or your firm, otherwise they would not have remained clients. What they want is to feel comfortable with you as a professional. The best way to make them comfortable is to get them to talk about themselves. Your client visit should focus on listening to what they have to say. The more they talk, the more you will learn about how you can meet their needs.

To make the initial approach to schedule the visit just say you want to come by, at no expense to the client, for a visit of several hours to learn more about what they do and what concerns them most. Schedule the visit for a time that is most convenient for the client. When you meet, never put clients on the defensive. What you want are empathy and rapport.

Lawyers too often slip into adversarial questioning, but a visit to the client’s habitat takes a much more supportive approach.  Develop a questioning hierarchy for the type of information you want to receive by using an acronym called SPIN for four types of questions to ask.

• Situational. These are the questions that you ask at the start of the meeting to set the stage and gather background — the “how are you doing” kind of questions.

• Problem. These can be more specific and focus on concerns — the nagging issues that keep a client up at night — but don’t ask about them in a way to evoke fear or defensiveness.

• Implicit. These subtle questions can bring out more information on issues that the client has raised. They can help the client understand the seriousness or urgency of a particular point, and demonstrate that you’ve heard and understood what the client has to say.

• Need. This kind of question can bring out specific objectives (and help you think of how you can meet them) if the client has spoken about concerns or issues in a general way.

None of this questioning is unusual or intensive. What makes it work is that you’re doing it in the client’s own habitat … at no charge … with no pitch for new business. The goal is a stronger relationship, and the client’s habitat is the best place to forge it.

Editor’s note: Poll is the principal of LawBiz Management, a national law firm practice-management consultancy based in Venice, Calif. For more information, visit

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