Importing the Latte Method Into Legal Services

There’s a smug feeling in our profession. A sense of entitlement and accomplishment, and inevitably for some, an assumption of superiority.

It’s true, most lawyers have undergone extensive education and training, often in high-stress environments, and presumably have developed some technical skills as it relates to their practice. But despite all of this, a lawyer simply may not be as intelligent as their local barista.

I will pause here for a minute to define intelligence as proposed by Howard Gardner, along various modalities often overlooked in legal practice:

  1. Spatial
  2. Linguistic
  3. Logical-mathematical
  4. Bodily-kinesthetic
  5. Musical
  6. Interpersonal
  7. Intrapersonal
  8. Naturalistic

Arguably some of these have limited relevance to legal practice, and therefore should be overlooked. But the interpersonal trait is often associated with a term called Emotional Intelligence (EI), the relevance of which to practice has been described on Slaw by Linda K. RobertsonConnie Crosby has also pointed out the importance of EI in mediation and arbitration.

Consider this passage by Peter Ubel in Forbes recently:

We physicians spend thousands of hours memorizing Latin words, learning to recognize signs and symptoms of illness. We spend thousands more familiarizing ourselves with tests and treatments—with medication side effects, surgical indications and whatnot. But outside of psychiatry training, or the rare enlightened medical school, we don’t even receive a fraction of the training that Starbucks employees receive about how to recognize and respond to people when they express negative emotion.

Replace the word physician with lawyer, medical terminology with legal, and we have a similar symptomatology. The treatment comes from your local Starbucks, not in your Venti Latte, but in what is referred to as “The Latte Method.” Ubel recites Starbucks’ mantra as disclosed in Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit:

 We Listen to the customer, Acknowledge their complaint, Take action by solving the problem, Thank them, and then Explain why the problem occurred.

Wait, you thank your client for complaining? Has that happened in a law firm ever, anywhere on the planet?

I’ve mentioned this approach previously in context of high-conflict personality clients, but the reality is that as a service industry legal professionals can still improve considerably on the actual services they provide. Ubel explores further the collaborative relationship with patients/clients in his book. Making difficult decisions, where the “right” choice is highly dependent on the client’s specific values and preferences, requires effective communication. But effecting communication requires EI and a recognition by the professional that the client’s emotions related to their legal problems are as important as their legal problems themselves.

Ubel wonders whether Starbucks employment should be a necessary prerequisite for medical school admissions. The abysmal legal job market in the U.S. already has some lawyers working as baristas, so we may be one step ahead. All jokes aside, Marie Maron, acting director of student programs at Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, has emphasized here on Slaw the importance of EI to their recruitment process, and for success within the firm. Historically though, EI has been valued more for internal relationships within the firm and possibly client development than it has for the actual provision of services.

You’ll recall that the bulk of legal malpractice claims stem from or are based on miscommunication. Spending that extra time is difficult in a busy and hectic practice, but perhaps we all need a coffee break The Latte Method to take scope and address the bigger picture.

To borrow from another physician analogy in Luke 4:23, it’s time we tell ourselves, “Lawyer, heal thyself.”


  1. Thanks for this. I think this concept applies also to the mediation field – we must encourage client feedback of all kinds and welcome complaints in particular. Then, we have to respond quickly and appropriately. As Bernie Mayer says, people who complain usually want 3 things: acknowledgement, perhaps an apology and assurance that their experience has made a different (that changes will be made to prevent similar experiences for others in the future). Without complaints how will we know how we can provide better service?

  2. Erik Barker at Business Insider just published an article listing the professions with the highest and lowest rates of psychopaths (defined as a personality disorder characterized by shallow emotions, etc.).

    Lawyers top the list, just under CEOs.

    Barker explains the phenomenon as follows:

    …most of [these] roles… offer power and many require an ability to make objective, clinical decisions divorced from feelings. Psychopaths would be drawn to these roles and thrive there.

    Could it be that the legal profession inherently draws personalities who have a lower EI? If so, this could be a very important obstacle in transforming the manner in which legal services are provided.