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Thin slice your way to increased law firm productivity.

Tim Johnson of Carpe Factum has just challenged me to reveal how I “thin-slice” cases and clients. Thin-slicing comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink. Thin-slicing is about training your mind to focus on only the most important facts. Gladwell’s position is that a well trained mind makes better decisions based upon a snap assessment of a few important facts than upon a tedious analysis of a myriad of facts.

Why thin slice clients? In my experience certain types of clients and cases generate 20% of the revenue, but cause 80% of the headaches. The remaining 80% of clients and cases generate only 20% of the headaches. Getting rid of these “headaches” not only makes the practice of law much more rewarding, but may also reduce your malpractice exposure. The trick is to thin slice these clients and cases out at your initial meeting. It is much easier to decline a representation than to fire a client.

How do I quickly size up a patent client in an initial meeting:

Are they truthful? – Truthfulness is of primary importance. I can tell the client is merely telling me what they think I want to hear. Rehabilitation of “white liars” is rare. I encourage such clients to find an patent lawyer more suited to their temperament.

Do they listen? – Patent clients come to patent lawyers for patent expertise. If I tell them “X” is wrong and “Y” is right, and they persist in believing “X,” I foresee an unhappy patent attorney-patent client relationship for both parties.

Are they overly/underly concerned about the fees? – You do not want the nickel dime client, but you do not want the money-is-no-object client either. The money-is-no-object client likely: 1) has unrealistic expectations of what you can do for them; or 2) does not intend to pay anyway. The best clients are interest in getting accurate cost estimates and value for the fees they pay their patent lawyer.

Are they smart? – The best clients ask the smart questions and process the answers. I have worked with dumb PhDs and brilliant high school drop-outs. Even in a short initial meeting smart clients ask smart questions. They come across humble and unconcerned that you might confuse inquisitiveness with a lack of intelligence. These “smart” clients extract the most value from my hourly fee.

Are they (too) willing to trust me? –If a potential client approaches me preoccupied with how I might cheat them, the meeting ends rather quickly. If a client is too far in the other direction, however, saying things like “You do what you think is best, I trust you” I start to feel the hairs on the back of my neck tingle. Clients have to take ownership of big decisions. In the initial meeting I identify big decisions, give them options, the pros and cons associated therewith and my advice based upon what I know of their goals. If they shirk big decisions back to me, I take a good hard look at whether this is a client I can afford to have.

Judicious client selection, based upon thin-slicing clients in initial meetings, makes for happier patent clients and a more enjoyable patent law practice. In the last five years, thin-slicing has added more pure enjoyment to my practice than any other single factor.

Brett Trout

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