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The relationship trade

The relationship trade

Bob Murray

Lawyers don't sell law, they sell relational support – and that's something technology can't replicate, writes Bob Murray.

I gave a talk at the LawLink Conference in Dunedin recently and, as with so many law leaders conferences of late, much of the talk and many of the speakers’ offerings concentrated on how technology was going to destroy the legal world as we know it. Well, I’m sure they are all right – sort of.

But there’s a big BUT built into the whole debate that no one seems willing to tackle – maybe because they’re not aware of its existence. I’d like to take you on a little journey into my science – behavioural neurogenetics – to explain what I mean. Come on, it’s not that scary.

One of the things that scientists have discovered in the last couple of years is that human beings are only willing to buy four things, which are closely related to our primary drives. Everything that we purchase is either directly one or more of these things or a means of acquiring these them. They are:

• Shelter, including clothes
• Food, including drink
• Sex, or procreation success
• Supportive relationships, or that which garners us more or will (in our view) strengthen those we have.

That’s it. They are baked into our DNA and are related to that which kept us alive as hunter gatherers on the African savannah many millennia ago. Our genetics are the same as those ancient ancestors of ours, their drives are our drives. Ours purchases and acquisitions have an overlay of technology and substitution, but they are essentially the same things that our ancestors sought.

Now the first thing that you’ll notice about this list is that legal services are not on it. You don’t sell law per say, you never have and you never will. People buy your services as a way of acquiring something which in turn will get them shelter, food, sex or relationships. You’re not in the business of selling law because you can’t. And as this is true of the past so it is the key to the future.

What are you selling directly as opposed to indirectly? What business are you really in? What is your core offering? The constant in all the services that you sell your clients is your support, your guidance, and your protection. You are selling them the membership of your tribe with its promise of on-going trustworthiness and friendship.

Of course, there’s an awful lot of transactional work in the practice of law that will be digitised, outsourced, commoditised and in-housed. But that, in the long term, is both inevitable and probably a good thing because it brings you back to the core offering. People will always need relational support – it’s, as I said, in our genes.

Since every relationship is a mutual satisfaction of need, your need, in return for the support and tribal association that you offer, is that they pay your fee. And if mutual support is what you’re selling, they will without the usual quibbles. You’re in line with their design specs.

The successful selling of your core offering means that you will have to get to know your client well. And not just their business, but as a whole person. Their hopes, their desires, their fears, their assumptions. You have to become brilliant listeners and set aside your natural desire to show how cleaver you are or how deep your knowledge of the law – they’ll be able to get that knowledge from Google or from some fancy software.

You must become a good and appreciative questioner, and take time to listen to all they say without interruption and follow their train of thought by reflecting their words in your questions. You must be able to help them to see the world differently with more possibilities or nuances that they had thought of. Your value in the future is in your questions, not in your answers. It’s in your curiosity and your interest, not in your facts and reasoning.

Your training in the law has taught you a way of being curious and that will remain when law itself is no longer in demand.

Michael Greene, the managing partner of Henry Davis York, put it this way: “Our clients are buying a relationship with our people. Humans buy a relationship with other humans, with a person or a team. Our people have to form a partnership of mutual respect and understanding with their clients, underpinned by strong legal expertise.”

It really doesn't matter what people come to you to seek your help about. What matters is that you can ask the questions that will enable them to perhaps change direction. Your knowledge of them and their industry and your ability to come at the problem from a different, less involved perspective is where your value will lie.

“I've got it,” the CEO of a mid-sized US firm said. “In the future the term lawyer will simply mean someone who is a trusted advisor who can give you a lasting supportive relationship. A consigliere.”


Bob Murray is the principal at consultancy Fortinberry Murray and co-author (with Dr Alicia Fortinberry) of Leading the Future: The Human Science of Law Firm Strategy and Leadership.

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The relationship trade
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