New IAALS Report Studies Client Expectations for Lawyers

Report builds on previous Foundations for Practice study

The Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal Profession is trying to fill what it calls an “informational vacuum” in research about what clients say they need from lawyers they hire.


IAALS’ new report released at the end of October, called “Think Like a Lawyer,” uses client reviews from Avvo, a digital marketplace for legal services, and skills pulled from IAALS’ own 2016 Foundations for Practice report to make analyses about the types of skills legal clients deem important in their attorneys. 

“Clients are, of course, satisfied when their lawyers are knowledgeable about the law, advocate effectively on their behalf, and bring about desired case outcomes. But clients value more than just legal acumen,” says the report in its conclusion. “They want a lawyer who communicates effectively, understands how clients want to be treated, and behaves ethically and professionally.”

Logan Cornett, IAALS’ senior research analyst, said studying what clients look for is important because in their reviews, they frequently comment about how their lawyers treated them. She compared the client review findings’ overlap with findings in Foundations for Practice to a Venn diagram. 

According to the report, it builds on the Foundations for Practice report because that study focused on the skills and personality traits new lawyers need based on perspectives from other lawyers, but Think Like a Lawyer suggests “this blend of attributes and abilities is important not just for new lawyers, but throughout the lawyer’s career — and it is not just what other lawyers expect,” says the report.

Cornett said gathering and distilling the information from reviews took about two years, from coding the data to analyzing its significance.

The report distills the most prominent patterns that emerged in their analysis of thousands of reviews into five broad skill categories: Lawyering, communication, tenacity, business smarts and demeanor. The reviews IAALS studied cover lawyers in a broad range of practice areas, such as civil rights, family law, criminal defense and personal injury. The likelihood of high emotions and conflict inherent to cases is a common thread through most of the practice areas covered.

A graphic illustrating how to think like a lawyer

Cornett said the reviews showed lawyers’ interpersonal skills especially matters to clients with criminal and family law matters. They said they wanted lawyers whose case handling wouldn’t exacerbate the already high conflict and animosity of their cases.

From her personal perspective, Cornett said she was surprised to see from reviews that clients tend to prioritize interpersonal and practical case handling skills over actual case outcomes. She had expected the opposite. 

But in reviews, clients even drew connections between their lawyers’ personality traits and satisfaction with how their cases turned out. Cornett said some reviews mentioned satisfaction with lawyers’ skills such as communication and sensitivity even if the case didn’t come out in their favor.

“People were mostly commenting about the interpersonal things, and professionalism came up a ton,” she said. “Those kinds of things came up a lot more frequently than the outcomes piece.” 

To Cornett, the Think Like a Lawyer report is just a first step in developing a body of research on client expectations for their lawyers.

“From my perspective anyway, it’s not the final word on this issue,” she said. She sees developing a survey for qualitative research or one-on-one interviews with reviewers as a few different paths for gathering more information. 

Cornett said in-depth interviews would be a good tool for learning more about clients’ perception of what goes into lawyers’ interpersonal skills. For example, she said “professionalism” cropped up frequently in client reviews, but they didn’t often elaborate on what that means to them. 

“The frequency with which it came up indicates to me it’s an important thing,” she said. “But are we talking about the way the person dresses and comports themselves? Are we talking about how they communicate with other people? Are we talking about their physical presence in the room? … I think there are a number of these where I would just like to dive in a little bit more and understand the nuances of what each of [them] means from the client’s perspective.” 

—Julia Cardi

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