What Lawyers Could Learn about Client Relationships …..from Psychologists

Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud (Photo credit: Psychology Pictures)

We tend to think that we’re rational and have a logical basis for making decisions. Behavioural psychologists show that we’re wrong if we think that. How can lawyers benefit from greater insights into the strange workings of clients’ brains?

Kahneman, in Thinking Fast and Slow, writes about brains having two modes – System 1 which is automatic and thinks quickly with minimum effort and System 2 when we are giving our full mental attention to something. He shows that System 1 can easily overtake the workings of System 2, because it’s lazy!

Consider the question he puts in his book to demonstrate this point:

A bat and ball cost $1.10. The bat costs one dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

The number 10 probably came to your mind. But if you thought 10c you were wrong. That would mean the total cost is $1.20. The correct answer is 5c. This is an example of System 1 thinking taking over.

Here are just a few tips from Behavioural Psychologists on how to work with clients or staff differently to get more positive responses.

1.  First impressions really do count

Getting off to a good start in interviews or client meetings has thought to be important for a long time. Now there is scientific evidence that this is true.

Ask yourself what you would think of these two candidates:

Jo: bright – analytical – hard working – authoritative – emotional – stubborn

Sam: stubborn – emotional – authoritative – hard working – analytical – bright

If you’re like most of us you will have viewed Jo more positively than Sam, yet both have the same attributes. Being stubborn after you know they are bright might be thought of as a positive trait. But knowing that a stubborn person is intelligent somehow is seen potentially as a dangerous combination.

Apparently we should consider human beings to be like machines that jump to conclusions, many of which are wrong! Let’s be honest, most firms make poor judgements about lateral hires and we can all think that just because a person is a good lawyer, that they will become a good partner!

Learning for professionals: Try not to jump to conclusions too early when interviewing potential staff. Be rigorous. Be clear about the attributes you’re looking for. Look for hard evidence that they have delivered in the past.

2.  When offering prices for your work, use anchors, but not the nautical kind!

I’ve tried this experiment a couple of times and it demonstrates this point well. I ask everybody to write down the date of the month that they were born on and to focus on this figure. Then I bring out a decent bottle of wine and say I’m raffling it for an important charity and to invite bids. Believe it or not, those people with birthdays at the end of the month are more generous! Honestly, they are! This is the so-called anchoring effect.

One experiment on the powerful effect of anchoring was carried out at the San Francisco Exploratorium where visitors were asked:

Is the height of the tallest redwood more or less than 1,200 feet (c 400 metres)? What is your best guess about the height of the tallest redwood?

A second group was given a low anchor of 180 feet (60 metres). The two average answers were 844 feet and 282 feet, producing an anchoring effect of 55%.

Learning for Professionals: Before quoting a price, go through the risks to the client of not doing a thorough job and the benefits to them of having the job done well. Provide a project plan with the list of tasks and make sure the client is clear about the complexity of these tasks. This will have the effect of getting the clients to imagine the likely price. Then offer your price. Hopefully it will be less than they imagined and they’ll go ahead thinking they’ve got a bargain!

3.  Be generous when networking – potential clients will reciprocate

In Cialdini’s book, The Psychology of Persuasion, reciprocity is considered one of main elements of influence. If someone invites us to a party we tend to invite them back. We feel obliged to return favours.

This technique is widely used in the commercial world:

  • supermarkets offer us free cubes of cheese on the deli counter
  • smiling shop attendants hand out sachets of free product
  • direct mailing envelopes contain free gifts.

In an experiment in the USA some subjects receive an unsolicited can of Coke from another ‘spoof’ candidate. Others received nothing. When the spoof candidate asks the subjects if they’d be prepared to buy some raffle tickets, those that received the free Coke buy twice as many tickets as those not offered Coke. Furthermore they spend more than the value of the Coke!

All these techniques work because they successfully create a deep sense of obligation.

Learning for Professionals: Be generous in your networking. Think about what your prospective clients would value. Much of the time, it’s your attention – somebody that’s prepared to listen and perhaps offer some straightforward advice. Another way of being generous is to give up time to connect some of your contacts to other contacts. These psychological studies suggest your generosity will reap rewards.

4.  Provide positive evidence that you will be effective and add value

System 1 is basically lazy. It jumps to easy conclusions often with little evidence. So if we provide some straightforward positive evidence that we will deliver results, prospective clients will take the easy way out of decision-making and imagine you being successful.

The alternative requires a lot more effort by the client to imagine all the data they haven’t got. Kahnemann calls this effect WYSIATI – What You See Is All There Is.

Learning for Professionals: To win work from new clients, tell stories of how you’ve helped other clients. One firm I know has produced a video providing testimonies. If a client is keen on getting a deal done in 12 weeks, provide a project plan showing you get it done in 11 weeks

There are lots of other wonderful social experiments that can teach lawyers about the strange and wonderful behaviour of human beings. If you would like to know more I recommend these two books for starters:

Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini – Harper

Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman – Penguin

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This entry was posted in Business Development and Selling, Coaching and Training, Fee Negotiating, Leadership and Management, Networking and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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