The Cassandra Complex

First off – apologies. This isn’t the opening chapter to a Robert Ludlum novel, nor a tribute to the (apparently) legendary Euro-goth band.

One of my close friends runs a mountain guiding business. He recently spent a week’s well-earned vacation in Mexico, where he took surfing lessons. One of his conclusions was that it was surprisingly beneficial to switch roles for a while and become a customer instead of a service provider.

On a less enjoyable note, my wife and I have spent the last 2 months up to our ears in doctors, dealing with a high risk pregnancy. I couldn’t help but compare my reactions to the advice given by the doctors to the reactions clients must have to their lawyers. None of this was particularly subtle, but I found it interesting nonetheless. In no particular order:

  • Technical knowledge isn’t much help if the professional lacks communication skills. Corporate and IP clients tend to be pretty smart. If they don’t understand what I’m telling them, I assume it’s because I’m not explaining it well.
  • Communication skills alone won’t help a professional explain risk and make recommendations. Over and over again, the best advice we got came from the doctors with the most hands-on experience of what we were dealing with. They didn’t need to use extremes to justify their recommendations, and they were able to address uncertainties in ways that contributed to our understanding instead of undermining it.
  • It wasn’t difficult to distinguish between doctors who became personally engaged in our issues, and doctors who preferred to keep their distance. Advice from the former was always more compelling than the latter. (But, several doctors who were initially distant quickly became engaged, and their advice became more useful when they did so.)

Where does Cassandra come into this? More often than not, providing professional advice is less a matter of technical acumen, and more a matter of risk management. It’s hard to predict the future in a professional capacity and either (a) get believed, or (b) get credit for getting it right.

At one stage during our medical adventure, in a situation rife with uncertain outcomes (both good and bad), the doctors told us ‘We recommend you do X, because we’re worried about Y. Y may very well not happen, but it might.’ Doing X was onerous, but they pitched their advice right, and we followed it. Y did happen, so we had the luxury of knowing that the difficulties we’d incurred had been justified.

Every so often, lawyers will see clients heading down a path they’ve seen other clients follow with bad results. They’ll explain the risks to the client and make recommendations accordingly (ideally, by recommending a better way of achieving the same goal). At this stage, one of two things happens:

(A) The client decides that the risk won’t affect them, and goes ahead with its original strategy, usually because there’s some urgency in getting from point A to point Z. Subsequently, tactful lawyers will refrain from saying I told you so, and help extricate the client from the mess. (This is a more difficult scenario to deal with when you’re in-house counsel – you have to fix a mess you advised against, and not only do you not get compensated for the extra effort involved, but the cost of fixing it typically comes out of your own budget!) Alternatively,

(B) The client follows advice. Nothing bad happens. The client is never sure whether the lawyer’s foresight was correct, and whether the extra effort involved in following the advice paid off.

Maybe if Cassandra had had more experience of Greeks bearing gifts, and were able to communicate it, she wouldn’t have had to stand by and watch the Trojan horse wreck. But she’d have had to live with the subsequent complaints about looking a gift horse in the mouth.

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