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'Tis the season: Goodwill in legal business

'Tis the season: Goodwill in legal business


Pressures on the legal system can sometimes lead lawyers to over-focus on fee generation to the detriment of relationships with clients and colleagues, says David Cliff

T’is the season to be jolly, the song says, and goodwill to our fellow people is perhaps more on our minds at this time of year than any other. In the legal profession, goodwill is a year-round requirement.

‘Goodwill’ is defined by Wex Legal Dictionary as: ‘The good reputation or brand identification enjoyed by a commercial entity. In bankruptcy and other areas of law, goodwill is considered an intangible asset.’ These definitions would also fit the notion of goodwill as a relational component in our dealings with people.

At the heart of goodwill is the assumption of reciprocity in business practice. This can often be washed out by priorities around fee earning and maintaining the organisation’s growth and development. Such priorities can lead to peremptory practices, where human interaction is minimised unless it attracts fees, meaning our interpersonal interactions can be abrupt, clipped, and sometimes downright unpleasant.

Many people will rationalise this away by focusing on other priorities or find a reason in the present circumstances not to maintain goodwill within the relational space between oneself, one’s colleagues, and one’s clients.

The best lawyers around would appear to be those who are interpersonally skilled and recognise the value of this within the relational space between themselves and others.

No amount of technical expertise, ability, or insight into the legal problems a client presents will substitute for the maintenance of the relational space. Within this goodwill, respect, reciprocity, good humour, and an appreciation of the emotional content of the transaction are essential, even if the potential legal outcomes may be at odds with such sentiments.

Clients and colleagues are emotional beings first and legal collaborators second, and therefore focus on goodwill extends beyond the festive period and into the discipline of work. It requires a mindset that is increasingly person centred from those committed to making effective working relationships, respect, and interaction an integral part of their own professional identities, and consider goodwill to be something that is of real worth when extended to clients and colleagues alike.

Ah, ‘touchy-feely stuff’, I hear you say. I’m amazed at how many members of the profession feel they have little time for anything more than a tacit acceptance of the need for this, and thus place these skills on the professional backburner.

As the psychologist Erikson observed, we members of humankind are social creatures: outcomes are important, but this importance diminishes if they are devoid of meaning. Such meaning is derived from human interaction and that requires time, compassion, and person-centeredness in our dealings with individuals.

It is not to say we don’t need professional boundaries. What we must remember, however, is that those professional boundaries need to be tempered with compassion and regard for the client’s situation, as a way of understanding their needs, and what has motivated them to come and see you in the first place. It’s a critical part of the transaction process if the desired outcome for the client is to have a true fit with their motivation for acting. This is vital to ensure a congruent customer experience.

I had the privilege of business coaching a human rights lawyer in the London area whose compassion and regard for individuals means that the time he spends with them is not simply something to be clocked, but is offered in a goodwill-based, gentle-hearted, respectful way that generates esteem and loyalty from his clientele and affiliates alike. It works and it’s good for him and his business.

The legal industry has come under such pressure recently, not least with government’s general penchant for reducing access to legal services and depressing the economic activity therein. It creates a perfect storm between client and professional, and even between colleagues. The need for services has never been greater, the legislative and other frameworks through which lawyers must traverse never more complex, and yet the resourcing of the operation has never been more fragile, resulting sometimes in an over-focus on fee generation to the detriment of the relational as part of that journey.

Maintaining relational spaces with others from a position of goodwill brings about authentic relationships between clients, professionals, and colleagues alike. It strengthens that transactional framework that will produce many returning and loyal clientele who will be your best ambassadors in a highly competitive market space.

For all those who have read my contributions to this column over the year I’m extremely grateful, and extend a little goodwill and thanks to you for taking the time and trouble to join me on this year’s journey. May 2017 confer every blessing.

David Cliff is managing director of Gedanken