David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life
David’s ResourcesAbout David
NEW! Browse my materials by topic of interest:StrategyManagingClient RelationsCareersGeneral

Passion, People and Principles

The Trusted Brain Surgeon Advisor

post # 165 — August 17, 2006 — a Client Relations, Strategy post

Duncan Bucknell, who is a “lawyer, patent attorney and intellectual property strategy consultant” – and a regular participant in these discussions – writes in to ask:

To use an analogy I picked up from you, it seems to me that the trusted adviser is the local doctor – the person you first turn to for assistance.

The Brain Surgeon gets the most challenging and difficult work. However, they are too expensive to call all the time. You want them on your team when there is something really important, but you don’t need them all the time. So, is it actually possible for the brain surgeon to be anyone’s trusted advisor? The business model for the trusted advisor is clearly very different. (You have previously discussed hourly rate and lower leverage etc.)

It also affects things such as conflicts of interest policies. A true trusted advisor will work for fewer clients, because he or she is busy looking after each one more fully. He or she will also see conflicts where other advisors may not – simply to be genuinely looking after his or her client’s best interests. The brain surgeon can not afford such a tight conflict policy. He or she has a larger pool of clients who call for help less frequently, but when it is REALLY needed.

David, can you please shed some light how it is possible to stay a trusted advisor and a brain surgeon at the same time?

Duncan, let me both agree and disagree with your propositions. Your analysis seems to be position the “Trusted Advisor” as a particular role or “positioning”, rather than as a set of behaviors and skills.

I made the same distinction in a chapter called “What kind of Provider Are You?” in my book TRUE PROFESSIONALISM where, like you, I pointed out that the two roles are quite different. In that book, among many other contrasts, I pointed out that the “family doctor role” (I sometimes call it “psychotherapist”) is primarily about the skill of diagnosis – helping the client understand and unbundle the complex symptoms in a situation and decide what needs to be done.

As you say, it is to other people that I may turn (almost always WILL turn) to execute the highly specialist tasks that emerge from the diagnosis. I don’t want a surgeon deciding what needs to be done (they will always say ‘operate’) and I don’t want my family doctor or ‘trusted guide’ always saying “yes, I can do that, too, let me just get my knife!”

So, I end up concluding that you do have to decide what you want your market positioning to be. The tough part is that we’re all capable enough to do it all, but it would be a poor personal or firm strategy to actually do a little of everything and go to market shouting “You wan’t it we got it!” That’s no way to build a reputation. (Even though many large firms try to do exactly that.)

If ther’s a solution for a large firm (not an individual) I could see successfully pulling it off by having clearly organziaaed different teams, staffed with different people (just as a hospital does.) “Here’s our diagnosis doctors, and when the time comes, we have specialist surgeons to hand you over to, if you ever need them.” It won’t be credible if the same doctors keep working in all wards of the hospital!

Of course, even a brain surgeon, who focuses on highly technical tasks, needs to learn interactive skills such as those described in THE TRUSTED ADVISOR book. Brain surgeon’s don’t have to be strong, brooding, sullen, abrupt types. They can and should learn how to interact with clients for the times when they have to. But that’s not their role. It’s not their positioning.

You had it right first time, Duncan.


RJON said:

The Practice Of Law Is Not Brain Surgery

This statement is not intended to disparage our profession but rather to make the point that there are limits to the doctor analogy when applied to the business of marketing/managing a law firm.

And let me just go ahead and make the disclaimer that while I like to think I know alot about how to market & manage a small law firm, I don’t know squat about marketing or managing a medical practice.

Anyway, the point is that lawyers have a different kind of relationship with our pool of prospective clients and referral sources than do doctors. And these differences do not lend themselves very profitably to the trusted advisor/specialist boundaries Mr. Bucknell is attempting to draw.

Let’s take the brain surgeon for one example. His (or her) ONLY way to get business is by way of referral from other doctors. Afterall, it’s not like you’re going to complain of a headache to your realtor who will then have the qualifications or credibility to make an effective referral to a brain surgeon he knows. So the brain surgeon can afford not to be a trusted advisor to the realtors he comes in contact with. Not so for lawyers.

I’ll skip the socioeducational analysis of why, and trust that everyone reading this blog is experienced enough at Rainmaking to know that once people know you are a lawyer, there seems to be no end to the variety of problems they think you are qualified to help them with.

So the realtor from my example who himself may never have a need for an IP lawyer, if properly educated about the benefits of what Mr. Bucknell offers his clients, and if Mr. Bucknell is willing to serve the role of a trusted advisor to that realtor (by referring him to the right lawyer for his needs and the needs of prospective clients referred to him by the realtor, looking out for opportunities for the realtor, etc.) then the realtor can be a great source of business both directly and indirectly.

As a lawyer being a trusted advisor very often means helping people think-through their problems and helping them to find a solution, even when that solution does not involve the services of our own specialized firms – as often it does not.

Look at some of the most successful Rainmakers in the legal industry & you’ll see most of them have a few things in common:

  1. Their practice area is limited to what they do best;
  2. They make alot of referrals to other lawyers, accountants, realtors, etc. when the problem brought to them is outside their own limited practice area; and
  3. They recieve alot of referrals from other lawyer, accountants, realtors, etc. who may not be clear about what the Rainmaker’s own unique niche is, but they know that whomever they refer to him/her will be get the help they need from the best qualified professional for the job.

Oh yeah, and they’ve all read Trusted Advisor too!

I think Mr. Bucknell is over-thinking the way Rainmaking works for lawyers: There are several right ways & plenty more wrong ways to make it rain for a law firm. The easiest is when we help as many people as we can to find solutions to the problems they bring to us, either directly or by making the right kind of referral. If we handle the sales call and the referral with any skill at all those people learn to keep calling us first. Eventually, they call with a problem we can get paid to help them solve. Similarly, with even some basic rainmaking skills and systems, the other professionals to whom we have been referring all those clients who were wrong for us, but right for them, pick up the phone & start referring the right kind of business to us.

[The remainder of this comment has been removed.]

posted on August 17, 2006

Duncan Bucknell said:

David – thank you for posting my question and as always, your wisdom.

RJON – thank you very much for responding to the post.

I don’t mean to be difficult, but my problem is not rain-making, I am lucky enough for that not to be a problem. For the sake of the problem solving exercise, let’s remove the labels ‘Trusted Adviser’, and the medical analogy.

The question is about maintaining close relationships with clients. Which seems very difficult if you only interact with them infrequently – because you are highly specialised. If you stay in close touch with clients so that they will call you whenever there is an issue in your field (and this is much more rewarding for me personally), then because there are only so many hours in the day, you cap the number of clients you can work with, and see less of the difficult things, which are intellectually most fun.

A trite answer to this is to say that you don’t have to do all of the work, but just be helpful, and pass on the work that is not strategic for you to other people you can recommend.

Of course.

However, next time a similar issue arises, you won’t need to help as your client can go straight to your previous referral (and so they should – that’s the point). So inevitably, the relationship becomes more distant.

posted on August 17, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Duncan, I think some very good advice I’ve seen (very) recently on this was given by Ford Harding (author of Rainmaking and other books) and his partner Mimi Spangler.

Writing in Consultants News they offer advice on a related issue: how to “maintain a lead-flow pipeline” when you’re already fully-booked. It’s not the same question as yours, but the advice does, I think, fit. Here are some of Harding and Spangler’s suggestions:

  • Call anyway
  • Do less rather than nothing
  • Leverage firm marketing efforts (encourage employees to help stay top of mind with client contacts)
  • Block out a morning each quarter to catch up with old contacts

In addition, I’d invite you to re-read two of my articles “Young Professionals: Cultivate the Habits of Friendship” and “Do You Really Want a Relationships?

They both try to make the point that it’s taken me a long time to learn – that relationships get built NOT when you talk about work, but when you talk about NON-work things – when your making it personal and talking just to stay ion touch.

In other words, Duncan, we all need to change our whole attitude to business relationships. If we need a business excuse to call, we’re missing the whole secret of what builds relationships.

Boy, I wish I had understood that earlier (and lived up to my own principles better!)

posted on August 17, 2006

Duncan Bucknell said:

Thanks David.

As for relationships – I understand and agree, I care about my clients equally whether it is old Mrs Smith with her best friend, Tommy the cat with my veterinary hat on, or Global Pharma company Y wanting to work through lifecycle management.

There is only so much time that you can spend on relationships, whether in your business or personal life. My wife and children get the lion’s share of that time.

Thanks again


posted on August 17, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Duncan, I was trying to remind both of us of more than the principle. I know we all agree with it.

Since there truly is only a finite amount of time, and we’re all INCREDIBLY busy, your (our) question becomes: –

Which actions best build our relationships while requiring the least amount of time? (Subject to the constraint that they mustn’t be phony, right?) Where’s the highest ROFTI? (Return on friendship time invested.)

I hope others will join in with specifics, but what I was trying to offer as my conclusion to that question is the following set of hypotheses:

a) Many small (tiny) acts of interest and friendship (mateship?)count for more than a few grand gestures

b) Things you initiate count for more than things you respond to

c) Doing something that is truly personalized to the individual (reflecting the fact that you understand them as a human being)counts for way more than anything that has inherent value or takes a long time

d) The key is to *be* truly thoughtful, considerate, kind and understanding.

Now, I’m better at the theory than I am in practice, so help me (and Duncan) out, gang. Join in, please.

What specific actions can a busy person do that meet these criteria and accomplish the goal of cementing relationships without destroying the time you have for your family?

posted on August 17, 2006

John Eric Pollabauer said:

You were asking for examples of specific actions a busy person can do with respect to cementing relationships – how about something as simple as greeting people warmly with a genuine smile on your face?

posted on August 18, 2006

Tim Burrows said:

My idea actually relates I think to an earlier post that David wrote. If you take the analogy further, the brain surgeon actually has two relationships. One is with the patient that actually has the brain tumor, but the other is with the GP that refers the patient to the brain surgeon.

I think that the relationship between the brain surgeon and the GP is equally important, certainly if you consider that this is the person that the brain surgeon would be spending most of his/her time dealing with.

As an engineer, I have a similar problem. A client doesn’t build a wind farm every day. It might be years between projects, and over the years you may need dozens of clients to keep the work flowing. It’s hard to maintain close relationships with people that only need your services once every 5 or 10 years.

Building services engineers tend to do a lot of work for architects. Although the end client (the one that is buying the building) may change regularly, these engineers build strong relationship with the architect, who may use the same engineer for a dozen projects over the course of a year, all for different clients.

It may not be as satisfying in some respects, but in some ways you are still helping a client, even if it isn’t the end user.

To a certain extent, pharmaceutical companies work on this principal. While they spend a great deal of money advertising to consumers directly, they also spend a lot of time and money on GPs, who are the ones that prescribe their drugs.

This is particularly the case in Australia, where it is illegal to advertise prescription drugs – GPs are heavily targeted by sales reps from these companies.

The ethical issues of this are beyond the scope of this discussion, and I don’t think it solves the problem, but can anyone build on this to open up the paradigm some more? Is there any equivalent situation in your legal firm? If you are a “brain surgeon” lawyer, is anyone referring your clients to you? Maybe they are the ones that you should be building the relationship with.

posted on August 18, 2006

RJON said:

How To Get More Than 24 Hours Out Of Your Day


I get where you are coming from. You want to be the kind of person who people think of when they have a problem. You want to help those people find solutions, even when the solution doesn’t involve your services. And you are in the enviable position of being booked-up already with good paying work in your chosen area of expertise.

By the way, I’d just like to point out to anyone reading this the fact that Duncan is so torn about how to keep up with people even when they don’t have cases he wants to work on is probably a big part of the reason he has so much work in the first place, so bravo to you Duncan!!!

Anyway, two ideas I can elaborate on if you’re interested:

1. Rainmaker’s Rolodex. I teach my Rainmaking Clients how to use a Rainmaking Rolodex to maintain relationships with lots of people. Take an empty old fashioned Rolodex & start making cards for people based on their interests. For example, If I knew David had an interest in Tennis and Parrots (I just made that up) then he’d get two cards. One would be filed under T for Tennis, the other under P for parrots. Everytime I read a story, run across an interesting case, etc. that may be of interest to people who like parrots, I flip to the P section & they all get a copy of the article to let them know I was thinking about them.

2. Combine your time with family & friends with the time you spend maintaining relationships with your clients & referral sources. Obviously this approach has its limits, especially depending on your practice area. But there are TONS of opportunities to bring clients together in social settings so that you can literally have your cake & eat it too. I once had a client (solo bkcy lawyer) whose passion was fishing. But he never went fishing b/c he was too busy. So we made plans for him to organize a day of fishing with himself & his young son along with an accountant who used to refer business to him, another bkcy lawyer who refers him COI work from a larger firm, and a local business owner who just happened to seem to be in a position to refer business often. I think two of the other men also had sons, who it so happens liked to fish but hadn’t spent time on the water with their Dads either. By being the one to initiate the whole event, my Rainmaking client got to not only spend time doing something he loved to do with his son, but also contributed to three other profitable relationships.

Sorry, gotta run to a film festival with some clients & friends. Let me know if you’re interested & I’ll elaborate




Helping Lawyers In Small Firms Make ALOT More Money.

posted on August 18, 2006

Justin Yousif said:

How much do you get paid a year.

posted on July 21, 2007

Camila Munoz said:

What is a brain seurgons salary?

posted on May 23, 2008