Don’t Feed Your Clients “Fish Gravy”

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Fish Gravy????

True Story

As one of 12 children and limited assets, my parents wouldn’t allow me to have a dog. The care taking and potential vet bills made it less than sensible in my parent’s eyes. However, with some reluctance,they did allow me to have a cat and that was that.

My cat, according to my dad, was a brat. They often spat. For the cat was white, and for all her might, she took delight in foraging at night. The cat, you see, would eat like mad, tomatoes which we grew for dad. Since she was white, the red about her mouth was bright, would show my dad that she had had tomatoes late at night. So he would yell and I would tell the cat to hide from sight.

There was no love lost between my dad and the cat which I dearly loved. My dad and mom worked full time. My mom was a nurse and worked the evening shift for as long as I can remember. She never drove and took the bus every day to be at work at 3 pm. That meant that no one was there to prepare dinner except the three older kids, my self included. I was in fourth grade when I came home to a note on the counter telling us to prepare ocean perch which was thawing in the kitchen sink. Investigating, I was shocked to find the fish and my cat attached to one of the two packages, having consumed a great deal of the fish already. I immediately thought of substituting for hamburger or some other option, but it was Friday, and being good Catholics, that was not an alternative.

When my sister came in, I explained my dilemma and one of us, I can’t remember who, came up with the idea of extending the fish and disguising it in a gravy. Quickly, we secreted away all evidence before another of my siblings discovered what had happened and told on me. I got out the Betty Crocker cook book and looked for a recipe for “fish gravy” and to my chagrin, there was none. So, Dian and I decided to innovate and using flour and milk and a lot of Worcestershire with plenty of salt and pepper, a bit of catsup and some mustard thrown in, and “voila”, you have fish gravy.

I have to admit, it tasted awful. But with dad on his way we had no time to loose. We were committed. When dad came home and into the kitchen, I was hard at work preparing dinner with my sister’s help. Dad looked at the fish and said, “what is that?” I kept a straight face and with a flourish,  I told him I thought we could try fish gravy for a change. At first, he looked puzzled, but seeing my excitement, he joined in by complimenting me on my creative spirit and proceeded to be seated at the table with everyone else. He soon announced, that Gary had created his own fish gravy recipe and complemented me in front of all my siblings for my effort. As I glanced toward my sister, she had a sheepish look on her face but said nothing to disclose my ruse. Normally, my eleven siblings would clear the platter of all the fish in no time. That night, as I recall, the platter was never emptied. Everyone filled up on potatoes and vegetables and bread that night and no one commented on the gravy.

Do you ever find yourself feeding your clients “fish gravy”? Shortcuts or a patchwork of misinformation just to get by and baffle the client sufficiently so that they won’t discover that you don’t have the answer? If you do that, they will not finish the “platter” and never come back for more. Your practice will not grow and your clients will not refer others to you.

I have often heard “fake it till you make it” which is fine as long as your client isn’t harmed by your lack of knowledge. What many of my students fail to understand is that it is ok to say, “I don’t know the answer.” As long as it is followed by ” That is a great question, I will research it and get back with you.” If you do that, I have yet to have a client or student, for that matter say, “boy, are you incompetent!” In fact, they will have greater confidence in your counsel as you have demonstrated a willingness to work hard for them to get to the answer. At the same time, you have paid them a compliment for coming up with a great question!

Very often, even if you know all the answers during your first meeting, it never hurts to give the client some of the guidance they are requesting, but not every answer. It is much like a job interview, when asked “tell us about yourself” you respond with a full litany of every juicy detail and leave nothing to their imagination. Instead peak their interest with a few juicy details and leave them wanting to hear more. How many clients reflect on the fact that they only met with their lawyer for 1 hour and got a bill for $500. They fail to appreciate that the value gained was hard earned through years of experience and training. It was not the time taken as much as it was the wisdom extracted that they are paying for.

The truth is that as lawyers, every day we will be confronted with a “crisis of confidence” as I heard one practitioner describe it to my students. If you try to disguise your lack of authority by bluffing your way through, do you really think the client can’t see through your lack of knowledge? Don’t feed your clients “fish gravy”, save it for the table – and even then, I hope you have much greater success than I did. . . .

Posted in For Established Solos, For Law Students, For Recent Graduates.

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