“Sell me this pen!”

Lawyers need to show potential clients the solutions to their needs, argues Gary Goodwin

Gary Goodwin

“Sell me this pen!”

I thought this was a great example of establishing a need for a product. In the black comedy The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character asks a tableful of associates at lunch to sell him a pen. One of them takes the pen from DiCaprio and asks him to write down his name on a napkin, to which DiCaprio replies, “I don’t have a pen.” “Exactly,” his friend replies; “supply and demand.”

If a potential client is interviewing you to be their new lawyer, you might be asked a similar type of question. What value would you bring to the client as their new lawyer? Some might simply describe the attributes of the pen, i.e., one’s attributes as a lawyer. Shiny, easy to hold, slips readily into your pocket. (Few clients would look for a shiny lawyer, of course, but you should always look your best regardless; keep those shoes polished!)

However, describing your own attributes does not truly address what a client might be looking for in a new lawyer. Clients already presume a lot of the attributes you might possess, such as university degrees, papers written, or presentations at conferences. It’s fine to present yourself as a recognized expert, but this does not necessarily address the needs of the client.

Others may ask what the client is looking for in a pen. What did they like about the last pen they had, for example? But if the client is looking for a new lawyer, you would be better advised to ask what they did not like about the last lawyer they had. Chances are this will include poor communication or a lack of detail regarding the billing process. This goes a bit down the path in identifying what a client would be looking for in a new lawyer, as few clients will have been completely satisfied with a lawyer they have voluntarily left.

But yet still others will identify a problem, as DiCaprio’s associate did, and show how the pen would solve the problem. This is the solution-based approach. Most lawyers can provide solutions, such as drafting a will or a simple real estate transaction, and as you become more specialized you can solve even more complex problems. Problem identification is a forte of most lawyers, who often take pride in identifying how risky a venture might be. Most clients look for how risk can be mitigated or avoided altogether, and this requires a strong recommendation on a course of action as opposed to simply pointing out the risks or problems.

There may be one more step beyond simply showing how you would fulfill a client’s need. 

In Robert Shiller’s book Narrative Economics he discusses how the first solution-based approach is analytic self-referencing. Shiller suggests a narrative self-referencing and narrative transportation approach. This suggests telling the client to imagine themselves taking this pen and signing a multi-million dollar contract. (That’s perhaps a bit self-delusional, but may be powerful all the same.) You would then be in a position to suggest how your particular skill set would be best placed to help a client achieve their own particular objectives.

Shiller quotes Jean-Paul Sartre, who wrote, “This is what fools people: a man is always a teller of tales, he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it.”

Merriam-Webster defines a narrative as a way of presenting or understanding a situation or series of events that reflects and promotes a particular point of view or set of values. Shiller describes a narrative as a subset of a form of story, with important elements suggesting their significance to a potential new client.

A narrative helps a client recall the details of a particular encounter; and the best narratives include human interest, with some aspect the client can identify with. Framing a solution by way of a narrative helps the client visualize how you would be best placed to assist them with their problem.

The use of narrative also allows the client to visualize themselves as part of the story. So, a lawyer might use examples of how they successfully guided other clients through difficult situations. Lawyers should be able to reach back sufficiently to recall how they resolved a situation to benefit a past client, and how this might work to the potential new client’s benefit.

If you then provide some rich visual image for the potential client, this may help the client retain important information; for example, pointing to some artistic gift, perhaps a framed golden fountain pen that a client gave you for a job well done might help the potential client see you as their new lawyer accomplishing great things for them.

Working some of these visual images into a narrative should raise you above the generic Bic pen-pack.

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