Category Archives: Developing Clients

Should Young Lawyers Specialize?

"One word . . . plastics." -The Graduate

“One word . . . plastics.”
-The Graduate

I never for a moment thought about pursuing a career as a transactional attorney. I entered law school for the wrong reasons. I knew I could think, write and argue reasonably well. I was a liberal arts major (Philosophy and Literature-Writing) and did not really appreciate how such skills could translate into success in the business world. And I did not think I would enjoy a career as an educator.

So, I did exactly what I would urge no one do today: I took the LSAT, got into law school, and went to law school, without having any particular passion about the law.

If anyone had asked back then–and I don’t think anyone did–what I planned to do with that law degree, what area I’d practice in, what I wanted to do everyday, if and how I would make a difference, I wouldn’t have had a clue. When I was interviewing and starting my career, there were vastly more jobs in litigation, so I became a litigator. I started out doing insurance defense, but not the interesting kind, and immediately grew bored with fender-benders (“Was the light red or green?”) and slip-and-fall lawsuits (“Was the banana you slipped on yellow or green?”). Fortunately, I got hired right away at a boutique firm that did more interesting work (at least from my perspective). I quickly became a “specialist” in automotive product liability litigation, specifically suits relating to the performance of automobile air bags, which was an emerging technology at that time.

I remained a “specialist” in this area, with a smattering of other kinds of cases, for about the first 10 years of my career. However, I eventually figured out that, deep down, I’m not really a gear-head, and it shouldn’t be a big surprise that the lawyers who really excel in automotive product liability litigation, and who most enjoy what they do, are those who are interested in cars. Well, duh!?!

I eventually migrated to employment law for a number of reasons. First, and most practically, it was the only area that I was able to get any early traction in terms of developing my own clients. Equally important, however, being the opposite of a gear-head, I found I enjoyed disputes that arose out of (often flawed) interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Also, I had long felt that employment law was fertile ground for building a book of business, since every, EVERY employer, particularly in California, needs an employment lawyer. If they haven’t needed one yet–they will!

I had not intended this post to be a memoir. I recognize that my career path probably makes dry reading. But I wanted to tackle a topic that I think is important for law students, recent graduates and those still in the early years of their career: should you attempt to specialize? Like most people, I’m narcissistic and can only approach a personal question by starting from my own experience.

In any event, I posed this question to someone who has a fair amount of expertise in helping lawyers make the most of their legal careers. Gideon Grunfeld, the President of Rainmaking For Lawyers, was gracious enough to provide this valuable insight:

“Too many lawyers get shortsighted advice about whether they should specialize and what that means. There are substantive areas, such as tax, ERISA, and patents, where specialization is almost a necessity. But there are many areas, such as business litigation, where specialization can be counterproductive. Rather than focusing on the substantive nature of the law and, for example, specializing in trade-secret litigation, it’s better to encourage young lawyers to identify the clients they most want to serve. Thus, for example, if someone has a passion for high-tech start-ups, they can focus on cultivating relationships in that world and position themselves to solve the full panoply of legal issues that arise for that market or audience. For most young lawyers this is a more robust not to say more fun way to practice law and build a client base.”

I tend to agree with Gideon’s advice. I like the notion of letting one’s specialty develop organically. In my case, it developed because someone close to me gave my business development efforts a big jumpstart by referring employment cases my way. I found I liked it and wanted to pursue it further. This is pretty much the opposite approach from deciding I wanted to practice entertainment law because I like to go to the movies (which I do).

What I would really caution against is remaining in a practice that never brings you any thrills. Even though I’m not a gear-head, there were parts of my products liability practice that I found compelling. I recognize that this is not the market for young lawyers to quit a job on a whim. On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with developing a mid or long-term career plan to move away from an area that brings you no joy, with the hope of finding something more fulfilling. If I was still fighting cases about people who tripped on a public sidewalk, I’d have to open a vein. But that’s just me.


When You Realize Clients Don’t Grow On Trees

cash1Some lawyers are lucky enough to breeze through a successful, maybe even lucrative, career without ever thinking once about finding new clients. This post is intended for the rest of us.

If you are in private practice, in business for yourself or a member, at whatever level, of a law firm, chances are pretty good that you will not excel in your career without becoming at least passably adept at identifying and developing new clients. I know there are some firms and some clients in which one can succeed simply by expanding the amount of work the firm does for an existing client, or you may be lucky enough to inherit a retiring or expiring lawyer’s book of business. Good for you. Even so, except in the rarest cases, only a fool would presume any single client will remain loyal forever.

If I haven’t convinced you, I don’t know what more to say, except to suggest you heed the often-quoted advice from financial planners that you keep an emergency savings account with several months–even a year’s worth of expenses set aside. Your job will never be secure. (Of course, that’s really true for all of us.)

For most of us, though, it’s not a matter of whether you need to cultivate clients, but when. When I conceived of this post–which could easily be (and sometimes is) the sole subject of an entire book, I had in mind addressing two issues that I’ve personally had to confront in my quest to develop my own stable of clients. These are: (1) the inevitable time squeeze and (2) the concept of freely giving.

1. The Time Squeeze.

As writer Mohsin Hamid points out, “Time is our most precious currency.” If you’re like me, you are going to feel a “squeeze” or shortage of this precious currency when you really commit to building business. To illustrate what I mean, let’s imagine that you work at a firm that expects–expressly or otherwise–that you will work and bill 1,900 hours in a given year. (When I say “bill” in this context, I’m referring only to hours that are chargeable to a paying client, i.e., excluding any hours spent doing pro bono, management activities, continuing education, networking and bar association events.)

Next imagine that, before you started on your quest to develop a book of business, you routinely spent 100 hours a year doing any of the other non-chargeable things listed above, including pro bono. For this illustration then, you are expected to devote 2,000 hours every year to both the practice and business of being a lawyer. If we give you a 2 week vacation, then you will be working and recording time–both chargeable and otherwise–40 hours per week. For most people earning a full-time salary, this sounds pretty fair. I don’t disagree.

The “squeeze” I was referring to comes when you start adding in time committed exclusively to finding new clients. I didn’t plan to write a compendium of all of the possible ways you could spend this time, but a quick and dirty list could include: attending events at professional networking, local state and national bar and practice area associations/groups, follow-up breakfast/lunch/coffee meetings with members of these groups to develop a rapport and cultivate a referral relationship, writing articles, lecturing, providing training and useful information to prospective clients, and developing a (hopefully) growing stable of contacts to be mined for potentially lucrative relationships (with the attendant breakfast/lunch/coffee meetings to develop a rapport and cultivate a referral relationship).†

How much time would you expect to spend doing these activities–if you really want or need to grow a book of business? 1 hour a day? 2? 3? If you averaged just one hour a day devoted to these activities, you’ll be adding about 250 hours to your 2,000 hour year, meaning you’d be working a total of 2,250 hours, or 45 hours a week, assuming you took a 2 week vacation (but no other holidays, so plan on working on Thanksgiving!). Again, many would view this as a fair investment, given the prospect of increased earning potential and job security.

But . . . if you can do it with a commitment of only 1 hour a day, I’d be both impressed and amazed. I say this because, each networking event I attend (roughly weekly) consumes at least 3 hours, including travel. The professional organization to which I belong creates an opportunity to have a “troika” follow-up breakfast or lunch with two other professionals from the group after each meeting. Assume, with travel, each of these meals consumes at least 2 hours, then I’ve already used up 5 hours for the entire week. Which would be fine if this activity alone was enough to gain all the new business I need. Unfortunately, doing this activity alone won’t be enough. Not nearly enough.

I think you’re starting to see what I mean by time squeeze. At this juncture, I probably spend between 10-15 hours of each week devoted to marketing efforts, though some of these are candidly spent on nonchargeable work at the front end of every new client or case (in other words, when I get a new engagement, I invariably spend hours looking at the matter, communicating with the (potential) client, researching a judge, budgeting, etc., none of which do I typically treat as chargeable). If you combine that with the responsibility to work chargeable hours, additional hours required to handle law practice management tasks, CLE, etc., it’s starting to look like a 2,500 hour year, which may be fine if you’re single and do nothing but work, but if you have a family . . .

Everyone faced with this time squeeze must decide their own best way to deal with it, because it presents a challenge. Do you spend less time with your family, forego personal time or regular exercise, reduce billable productivity? There’s no way to please everyone, but you’re only going to short-sell yourself career-wise if you’re in private practice and don’t make client development a serious goal at some point.

2. Freely Giving.

I’ve previously written about giving value-in-advance. This is really just an extension of that advice. In his excellent book, The Marble and the Sculptor, Associate’s Mind blogger Keith Lee included a chapter entitled “Attracting Clients and Business Development.” He discussed this notion of freely giving this way:

“So the big question, one that almost all new lawyers struggle with, is: How do you attract clients?

At the most basic level, it means being willing to give without expecting anything in return. This is often difficult for many people. People, not just lawyers, expect quid pro quo for the things they do. But it is often especially true for lawyers, as their trade is knowledge. Lawyers have received specialized, narrow training in a field and they tend to want to closely guard this knowledge as it enables them to charge clients hundreds of dollars an hour in return for access and use of that knowledge. It can be anathema to attorneys to share information freely as it might somehow devalue their knowledge assets.” (The Marble and the Sculptor (ABA 2013), at 68.)

This reluctance to freely share knowledge must be resisted and, ultimately, overcome. Why? Because sharing information without expectation of compensation creates a store of goodwill and provides prospective clients with an easy way to appreciate your expertise. Because in the real world many prospective clients will be unwilling to hire a lawyer for the first time without some kind of assurance that the lawyer is up to the task. Because it is one way to stand apart.

†A long time ago (relatively speaking) I wrote a post encouraging new law school graduates to make an effort to stay in touch with every person they got to know during school. If you followed this advice beginning at graduation, by the time you were in serious client development mode, at least some of those classmates would be in a position to refer business your way, whether they are in-house, general counsel or just fellow professionals. One really successful rainmaker I know used this method to jump start his book of business, which now hovers in the $3 million range.


It’s Resolution Time At Counsel Table

new-years-resolutionAs my wife will attest, I’m distrustful of resolutions, whether they’re made at New Year’s or some other momentous occasion, like discharge from rehab. But I’m going to take this New Year’s Day to make a resolution relating to client service: In 2014, I’m going to try very, very hard to change the way my clients think about lawyers.

This is not at all original. In fact, this is one of J. Dan Hull’s notorious “World Famous Bad-Ass, Annoying and Infuriatingly Correct 12 Rules of Customer Service.” Here’s what Dan says about this rule:

“This rule, like Rule One, is not so intuitive. But it’s the most challenging. The “under-promise but over-deliver” and “exceed customer expectations” notion of keeping good clients is a great idea. But I just don’t think it works that well for lawyers. I think that clients, rightly or wrongly, and whether or not they are even aware of it, in fact have low expectations of lawyers in the first place. For two reasons:

A. Traditional Pervasive Distrust of Lawyers (General–Deserved & Undeserved)

There is a pervasive (let’s face it, ancient) cynicism and suspicion about lawyers which even our most loyal and valued clients carry around with them. Some of it is unavoidable and not our fault. It’s based on everything from literature, TV, movies and lawyer jokes to a genuine misunderstanding of what lawyers must do to perform well. It’s deeply rooted in world culture.

B. Real Experiences-Based Distrust of Lawyers (Specific–Deserved)

But most of the distrust is our fault because either (1) our substantive professional services are merely “adequate” and/or delivered without passion or real caring–clients can sense that–or (2) we view clients almost as adversaries (they joke about us; we joke about them), which gets communicated to clients in every step of our work for them. See The First Post.

Let’s not kid ourselves. Why ‘try to exceed expectations’ when the overall lawyer standard is perceived as low to mediocre? If your clients are all Fortune 500 stand-outs, and the GCs’ seems to love you and your firm, is that because your service delivery is so good–or because other lawyers they use are so ‘bad’ on service? Why have a low standard, or one that merely makes you look incrementally more responsive and on top of things than the boutique on the next floor up? Why not overhaul and re-create the whole game?

If you read the better writers on services, like Harry Beckwith in Selling The Invisible, you pick up on this simple idea: Rather than ‘under-promise/over-deliver’, which is essentially job specific, why not change the way people think of lawyers generally and what they can expect from them generally? Get good clients–those clients you like and want–to keep coming back to you by communicating in all aspects of your work that you care deeply about your lawyering for them, you want to serve their interests on an ongoing basis and that it’s a privilege to be their lawyer. Show them you fit no lawyer mold.

Oh, yeah. One catch–and the hardest part: it’s got to be true.”

So how do I plan to execute? After all, a resolution without a plan is just an empty promise to oneself. I’m going to work on three core areas that tend to fuel a lot of client disappointment in their lawyers.

1. Communication. I’m going to work hard to improve my communication habits and practices. This includes a resolution to respond to any email or phone call from a client the same day. I’m going to report more, and more often, what’s going on in our case. (Yes, it’s our case. We’re in it together.)

2. Transparency. I’m going to strive to better involve clients in strategy development. Of course there are all kinds of clients, and some would prefer not to be involved; others want to plan every move. But those who want to participate will have the opportunity.

3. Value. Clients often hate to involve lawyers because they assume we are out to financially “gouge” them. I’m going to turn this on its head. I resolve to bring more value-in-advance. I will think of at least one way to save my client money at every step in any litigation. I will work harder to keep clients aware of major changes in California employment law–for free!

There. Now pass the champagne.


Be A Superlative Local Counsel

asdfreI previously wrote about the circumstances in which it makes sense strategically, financially or otherwise to involve local counsel. Here I want to draw on my experiences as an attorney who has frequently both hired and been hired as local counsel to offer some suggestions on ways you can be an outstanding local counsel.

One observation at the outset. Some lawyers or firms view the role of being local counsel to another “lead” lawyer or firm as less than desirable. They see it as somehow akin to being a second class citizen in the context of a lawsuit (or, I suppose, deal). While lawyers who have this attitude will usually swallow their pride and do the work, assuming they perceive the engagement as fiscally attractive, they never really put their hearts into it. I’ve had good fortune over the years with the firms I’ve hired as local counsel. And I hope my client firms have felt I brought value to our cases.

But I have sensed this kind of friction on occasion, particularly where my partners and I, as lead counsel, insist we do tasks that local counsel believe (perhaps accurately) that they would perform better and cheaper. This decision is usually based either on our financial arrangement with the client (a flat fee, for example) or because we perceive the client expects that we, as lead counsel, will do the work. There’s not much to say to local counsel in these circumstances beyond, I suppose, get over it.

With that piece of throat-clearing out of the way, here are some thoughts about what local counsel can do to set themselves apart and, in doing so, make future engagements more likely.

1. Put yourself in lead counsel’s shoes. Acting as local counsel is unique and calls for a kind of flexible, outside-the-box kind of thinking. Rather than “how would I handle this (situation, development, procedural requirement, etc.)?” the relevant question becomes “what does the client (i.e., lead) firm need to know in order to make an informed decision what to do under the circumstances.” This can be challenging because it may require a lawyer to suppress or ignore her own instincts about what to do, which sometimes conflicts with what the client/lead firm ultimately decides to do.

2. Don’t take much (or anything) for granted. Experience litigating in multiple venues may give us an idea how things are “generally done.” But some jurisdictions do things radically different. For example, the state courts in my home, California, have a very specific procedural scheme, particularly with respect to expert discovery. Out-of-state practitioners struggle to follow our rules of civil procedure because they are unique. Other states adopt procedures that seem to mirror the Federal Rules. The key for local counsel is not to assume your lead counsel knows what is required, even if your state court procedure is mostly on par with the Federal Rules.

3. What do you know about the judge? This is probably obvious, but one of the reasons to hire local counsel is for information and to have local connections. The best local counsel are active in their local bar association and/or Inns of Court. Excluding improper ex parte communications or other unethical influence, it is really helpful when the judge recognizes and respects our local counsel. Educating lead counsel about the judge is another area that is really helpful. You are our eyes and ears on the ground in the local venue.

4. What do you know about opposing counsel? Ditto from above. Even if not friendly or social, do you have–or can you develop–the kind of rapport with opposing counsel that will easily facilitate extension requests or other courtesies? Does opposing counsel have a pattern? Are they lazy until the last 90 days before trial? Do they always fight hard and then settle? Are they competent in front of a jury? Do they know the judge well? Even if you don’t know the answers to these questions, you should have the resources (i.e., connections within the local bar) to ferret them out.

5. What makes your venue potentially unique? This goes back to not assuming anything. The procedural routines you’ve dealt with your entire career may be completely unique and unfamiliar to your lead counsel. Think of this on both micro and macro levels.

6. Exponentially increase lead time. I’ll confess this has been a personal challenge, but you absolutely must think far in advance and let your lead counsel know about upcoming events and deadlines.

A perfect example is California’s summary judgment procedure. I cannot speak to how summary judgment motions are scheduled in other jurisdictions, but the California Code of Civil Procedure requires dispositive motions be heard 30 days before trial. The Code also requires 75 days notice (assuming personal service) of the motion (with additional notice if served by mail, overnight, etc.). While this seems easy to calculate, the rub comes with the clogged dockets of our virtually bankrupt state court system, which can make it all but impossible to ultimately schedule a hearing date within the necessary window if a party does not begin the scheduling process very early. There is authority which suggests the court’s docket, etc. cannot deny a party the right to bring a dispositive motion, but the practical impact of delay will include expensive additional, sometimes nail-biting  procedures, like ex parte applications to have motions specially set the hearing and/or to reduce notice.

7. Communicate, communicate, communicate with lead counsel. And then make sure you communicate some more. Seriously.

8. Don’t friggin’ poach the client. The idea behind taking this work is not as an angle toward poaching the client away from lead counsel. If you see it otherwise, you’re not doing anyone, including yourself, any favors.

9. Do what you can to make lead counsel shine in the eyes of the client. When you’re hired by a general counsel, legal staff member or claims adjuster, it should be an important goal to make that person look good in the eyes of those to whom they answer, whether it is a board of directors, a more senior legal staff member or a claims superintendent. When you get a local counsel gig, make it a goal to make your lead counsel shine in the eyes of their client.

Because I am at the stage in my career where I am aggressively building my own practice, I take opportunities to act as local counsel for what they are–great opportunities to work for new clients and with different lawyers. There’s no reason you shouldn’t do the same.


Learn To Give “Value-In-Advance”

qw22113Much of my approach to marketing my law practice derives from the two years I had one-on-one business development coaching sessions with Bob Kohn of Kohn Communications. First and foremost, he helped me get past the discomfort I had with asking for business (though I’ll confess this is still tough for me). In particular, he helped me appreciate that offering my services as a lawyer is quite different from trying to recruit a friend into Amway.

Even if one-on-one business development coaching is beyond your means, you can still benefit from the Kohn Communications model, since Bob and his brother Larry distilled their approach into a fine book, Selling in Your Comfort Zone (ABA 2009). One of the strategies Bob taught me, which he discusses in the book is giving “value-in-advance.” To do it justice, I’m going to skip my own description of this concept and simply quote the Kohns:

“‘Value-in-advance’ is the strategy of offering something for free as a way of allowing your targets to experience a sample of the benefits that you offer. If you were selling a product, then ‘value-in-advance’ might be a sample of the product.” (Id. at 71.)

According to the Kohns, value-in-advance serves multiple purposes. Among these–and why it is especially useful for me–is that it creates a reason/opportunity to reach out to one’s targets that is, at its best, positive and, at worst, neutral. In other words, by trying to offer something valuable in advance, you are taking an uncomfortable, potentially negative experience, and making it a hopefully positive one for both you and your target. Even if the “value” you offer in advance is not ultimately useful to your target, the exchange will likely be viewed at worst as neutral.

The Kohns point to how Gillette sent free Mach III razors to potential customers as a simple example of value-in-advance. Because I sell information, advice, strategy and representation rather than razor blades, I prefer to provide information, advice and strategy in advance, whether it is by an alert, a speech/presentation or providing counseling without charging for my time. Further, since I practice in an area–employment law–which experiences almost constant changes in the law, I truly believe that the information I provide for free brings value to my audience, or targets.

Many people I consider business development “targets” are not really potential clients. Rather, they are often folks whom I believe are, or will be, positioned to refer potential clients to me at some point in the future. For some reason I don’t completely understand, I find it much easier to “sell” myself to referral sources than to prospective clients. In any event, another type of value-in-advance which the Kohns discuss, and which I find both easy and valuable, is to bring together–through introductions–people whom I believe will benefit in some meaningful way from knowing one another. One example could be introducing a lawyer or accountant who specializes in the entertainment industry with a contact in the entertainment industry who could benefit from their services.

The Kohns discuss this kind of giving value-in-advance as follows:

“Introducing quality people to each other communicates compatibility and capability. It demonstrates that you know quality people. And, as those people interact with each other, it strengthens their emotional connection to you.” (Id. at 73.)

One would be naive to ignore the potential risks of making introductions, and I don’t make them blindly. The Kohns acknowledge these risks. They say:

“Many people are afraid to make introductions because of the possibility that the people you introduce may not get along. Or worse, they may do a deal that goes badly. It is important that when you make an introduction, you are proud of the people you are introducing. Also, you don’t need to make warranties. Rather, you should state that you are introducing people with the understanding that they get to know each other and decide for themselves if they feel comfortable working together.” (Id. at 75.)

Venture capitalist Mark Suster, who is not only a friend, but also someone I’ve come to view as a kind of “success mentor,” creates an even stronger argument for being “judicious” in deciding whether and to whom to make introductions. In his blog, Both Sides of the Table, he writes:

“Intros. They’re the lifeblood of networking – the currency of mavens. They are your route to angel money. Your entrée to sales meetings.

We couldn’t live without them.

But when misused, overused or abused they can diminish your personal brand, consume your valuable time and waste time of the relationships you value the most.

* * *

[H]ere’s the thing – every time you send an introduction you’re obligating people. At a minimum you’re obligating them to ignore the email and feel like an arse for not responding to your introduction. More likely they either end up finding an excuse not to meet, delaying a meeting indefinitely or in most cases actually taking a meeting.

Over-introducers also consume a lot of personal time in making intros. It is very time consuming doing intros the right way. Ask yourself the tough question about how you might spend that time more productively getting your job done well.”

Suster’s post has some useful thoughts and guidelines on when to make (or not make) introductions, and I recommend it.

The real takeaway here is that giving value-in-advance, whether through free razor blades, alerts about employment law developments or making quality introductions, can be a terrific way to market your product or practice without overtly marketing your product or practice. Check out the Kohns’ book for other ideas.


Should You Do A Post-Trial “Postmortem”?

ii_a_127Living through trial. The only thing most of us think about is winning. (Unless, like me, you get that 11 pm craving for carne asada burritos con guacamole, then you think about that, too.) After the verdict, win or lose, the last thing everybody wants is to go back through it and take stock of what happened, what went well or went poor and how we can do better next time.

But there is real wisdom, once the dust truly settles, in going back over everything to ponder, “What did we learn from this?” For institutional clients of every size, trials are a huge investment of time, money and resources. It makes a lot of sense for them, ideally in conjunction with their counsel, to do a trial postmortem. This not only helps prevent future “situations” requiring litigation but, if cases do arise in the future, it enhances the chances of success. Astute lawyers recognize the value and opportunities of this process and collaborate with their clients to do a comprehensive postmortem, possibly for free! Even if the client shows no interest, much can still be gained if only the members of the trial team come together for a postmortem session.

A generous article on this topic, “Trial ‘After Action Reviews,’” appeared in the August, 2013 issue of For the Defense. The authors, Milwaukee lawyers Ric Gass and Michael B. Brennan, point out that “Army generals as far back as Caesar in his ‘Commentaries on the Gallic War’ have learned strategic and tactical lessons through after action reports.” (Id. at 29) The article is sweeping in its scope. Among the valuable points made by the authors was the following:

“Crucial to the success of an after action review is, to use the military jargon, ‘leaving your rank at the door.’ If you are the lead counsel, you need to be willing to listen and to learn from the observations of others on your team. You were probably too busy while doing that crucial cross-examination to take in everything else in the courtroom, such as reactions of jurors, or of the judge or opposing counsel. But your co-counsel, your paralegal, or your jury consultant did watch for those reactions, and you need to hear what they saw.” (Id.)

The authors suggest some topics for review during the postmortem, including:

  • Jury Research: “Did the jury research accurately predict the attitudes and reactions of the jurors and the ultimate result on liability and damages?” (Id.)
  • Opening: “What worked well for us? What worked well for opposing counsel?” (Id.)
  • Direct Examinations: “Did a certain witness’s testimony connect with the jury, and if so, why?” (Id.)
  • Cross-Examinations: “Was the tone of the questions too harsh or too lenient? . . . How many of the admissions made on cross-examination made it into the closing argument?” (Id. at 30.)
  • Expert Witnesses: “Would we use this expert again, and more importantly, why?” (Id.)
  • Closings: “What worked well for each party, and why?” (Id.)

Finally, the authors point out that:

“Being a trial lawyer is a lifelong learning experience. . . . If you have had any kind of trial, but especially a major trial, you need to appreciate it for all the experience it brings and to wring every last piece of learning that you can from the experience. . . . [Y]ou need to figure out how to carry that understanding and the techniques that went right to your next trial.” (Id.)

I know first-hand how much clients appreciate it if, after the trial, you offer to travel to their offices and help your in-house counterpart prepare and present a postmortem, with the specific goal of avoiding similar situations in the future. They really, really appreciate it when you don’t charge them for the experience. If your trial counsel won’t do this for you, ask them why not. Then remember to call me.


Are Dan Hull’s Rules of Client Service Really So Infuriating?

Customer-Service2I am a big fan of Dan Hull‘s writing at his popular What About Paris/What About Clients blog. He has intellect, wit and a literary bent. One post which often seems to show up again and again in the legal blogosphere is his self-described “World Famous Bad-Ass, Annoying and Infuriatingly Correct 12 Rules of Customer Service.” If you’re not familiar with the 12 Rules, and you work in virtually any service industry, they’re worth thinking about.

I’ve wondered, however, why Dan refers to his own Rules as “annoying” and “infuriating.” Though I suspect he’s being hyperbolic, I think his description is unfair. I also think that any lawyer who finds the Rules annoying or infuriating should maybe look into another line of work. Here’s why I think the Rules are not so very annoying:

1.Represent only clients you like.

Ah, what a luxury, to be able to cherry pick clients and jettison those you don’t personally like. The Rule would be annoying, infuriating even, if you took the short, as opposed to the long view. If you’re a first year at a firm and servicing the firm’s clients, you definitely don’t have this luxury. However, as your career matures, you can hopefully begin to shape your practice and client development efforts so that you can increasingly avoid clients you don’t like. And you should. The remaining Rules are much easier to follow if you’re doing work for people or companies you like and respect.

2.The client is the main event.

If you’ve been a client, a patient or customer and been treated as a second class citizen–and who hasn’t–this rings true. The minute you lose sight of this Rule you’ve begun walking the road toward extinction, at least as a lawyer. Unless you provide a unique set of skills or knowledge and there is no one else in your region to compete with, you must follow this commandment, because at least one of your competitors will.

3.Make sure everyone in your firm knows the client is the main event.

Why would this be annoying? After all, these people are on your payroll. A good way to gauge whether others in your firm appreciate the importance of the client is by what they include in internal email communications. If, for example, they let comments slip into communications intended for distribution only within the law firm that suggest they do not completely respect the client, this should set off alarm bells and a chat should follow. First, we’ve all heard examples of emails in which the sender intended only to “reply” or “forward” the message, but instead hit “reply to all,” where “all” included someone–like a client–who didn’t appreciate a comment contained in the message. It’s a matter of time before this happens to everyone. Second, we often interact with our clients through our staff or associates. They need to treasure your clients (almost) as much as you do.

4.Deliver legal work that changes the way clients think about lawyers.

This Rule really doesn’t ask you to do anything beyond what many lawyers already do: aspire to practice law effectively, efficiently and, in the case of courtroom lawyers, win! The good news is that, with so many hacks running around out there, if you hold yourself to higher professional standards you’re already applying this Rule and clients will appreciate it. The bad news is that, with so many hacks out there, doing what hacks do, for so long, it’s going to take a lot to change the way clients think about lawyers. But do your part.

5.Over-communicate:  bombard, copy and confirm.

Put yourself in your client’s shoes. How much information would you want? It has been said that, as lawyers, we “sell paper.” That’s probably an oversimplification, but there is some truth to the notion that a client cannot appreciate what he or she never sees. A good part of what we charge for is the preparation of work product–motions, pleadings, correspondence, memoranda–why not let clients see what they’re paying for?

6.When you work, you are marketing.

Since we comply with Rule 5, supra, our clients can see and evaluate our work product. If the quality is high, it is both justification for the fees we charge and an advertisement why the client should hire us, and not a competitor, next time. If the quality is not high, it’s a perfect advertisement for our competitors. If you take pride in your work product, why would this be annoying?

7.Know the client.

In my practice, which focuses on defending employers in suits and claims arising out of the employment relationship, this Rule is elementary. It is why, as I’ve said, I take every opportunity to hold meetings at my clients’ offices or facilities. As Dan has said, “The client . . . actually wants you to know him, her or it. Take time out to learn the stock price, industry, day-to-day culture, players and overall goals of your client. Visit their offices and plants. Do it free of charge.”

8.Think like the client–help control costs.

I am constantly amazed at how costs mount when a case is litigated. I am not referring necessarily to the fees charged by the attorneys themselves, because this is a topic about which I have only the slightest understanding. Beyond a hazy idea of what others charge who do exactly what I do in my region, I don’t know what goes into this equation. I’m told there are now lawyers who bill $1,200 per hour. All I can say is, really?

Beyond attorney fees, however, there is a lot we can do to control costs when a case is in litigation, including deposition costs, investigation costs, photocopy costs. Sometimes, it takes some creativity, but our interests here should be aligned with our client and we should scrutinize these hard costs just as we would if we were paying invoices out of our own pockets.

9.Be there for clients–24/7.

This is what that iPhone is for (not just to play Angry Birds and take “selfies”). Oh, what it must have been like to practice law before fax machines, computers or mobile phones. But we don’t. We’re in a different era. We should not only survive in this new environment, but thrive.

10.Be accurate, thorough and timely–but not perfect.

Again, treat your client as you expect to be treated as a client, patient or customer. But feel free to occasionally cut yourself some slack, too.

11.Treat each co-worker like he or she is your best client.

This doesn’t sound at first like a rule geared toward client service, but here’s what Dan has said about Rule 11:

“Clients love to form partnerships with law, accounting, consulting firms and service providers of all manner with genuinely functional workplaces.  They love work communities where the professionals are demanding but love what they do and solve problems together as a team of happy, focused people who stretch–but respect–one another.  It’s fun for them to watch, and fun to watch them watch youClients want to be part of that.  Watching the “well-oiled” team is an image which sticks in the client mind.”

A well-oiled team is not only an image that sticks in the client’s mind, it is also a really good way to make the practice of law fun instead of pure drudgery.

12.Have fun.

Well, duh!


Want Clients? Look To Those Who Care About You Most

iikkuuOne of the first things a business development coach will tell you is to identify people whom you believe can help you in your quest to build a practice. If you’re like me, this might cause you to look around and compile a list of people you think might hire you directly. If you’re an employment lawyer, for example, you might try to identify business owners and human resources directors you know who could have an immediate need for your services and finding a way to market to them.

This is probably not the worst approach. After all, you’re doing something in a calculated effort to build business, which is certainly better than nothing, right?

But better than nothing is not necessarily the best. I’ve lately come to think there is indeed an even better way. Based largely on my own experiences, as well as what I’ve seen with friends and colleagues who truly qualify as “rainmakers,” I believe now that the highest return on effort (ROE), at least when you’re first building your practice, is to leverage those who you are close to and who probably care about you most. Sure the two approaches might overlap; if a close relative happens also to own a business that, as all businesses do, needs employment counsel, then there’s no difference. But what I’m describing here does not involve asking a friend or relative to send you work directly, but allowing that person to act as a conduit to boost your chances of getting business through an introduction or referral.

Let me right away clarify two things. First, what you’re after isn’t a free lunch. You’re not looking for someone to hand you an envelope full of cash; you’re seeking the opportunity to perform quality legal services for a person or business who genuinely needs that legal service. Second, I do not mean leverage in the sense of use. Do not use those closest to you to get ahead. You will feel like a user and your friends and family will feel used. Don’t be a user.

On the other hand, if your relationship and trust are such that you would not hesitate to do something–take a chance, even–to give your friend or relative a boost, then why not give them the same opportunity? I would argue (based on experience I’ve had acting as a conduit to build my friends’ businesses) that the friend or relative who goes out on a limb to help grow his/her friend’s business is the one getting the biggest emotional reward. Have you ever enjoyed giving gifts more than receiving them? Plus, the one getting the business opportunity still has to do the work, while the one who did nothing more than make an introduction or referral gets to sit back and feel good.

What I’m talking about involves a two-step process. First, it requires letting that person close to you know that she can help you and that you’d appreciate that help. This is necessary because it does not immediately occur to everyone that they can help you or that the help is wanted. Some might even hesitate to make an introduction or referral–particularly if they are not familiar with the practice of law–because they are worried it will be viewed as meddling in your business.

The second step requires explanation. You must help those around you understand exactly what you do and who your clients typically are. An easy way to do this is to explain a recent case you handled. If you were successful on behalf of your client (hopefully you were in this particular story), explain how good it made you feel to help that person or business through a tough situation. You want to sell yourself without sounding like your selling yourself. The point is to make that person who knows you, who trusts you, and who would probably like to do whatever he/she can to make your life better understand both that you would appreciate their help and how they can help.

This can be a lot easier if you’re in a position to assist the close friend or relative toward reaching his or her goals first. I’m a big believer in “paying forward,” looking for opportunities to do a good turn for another without any expectation of payback. I know now, in a way I never understood before, that there really is karma when it comes to relationships and good deeds in the business world. Unless they are direct competitors, people generally want to feel like they’ve played an important role in a close friend or relative’s success.


Client Holiday Gift Idea: See The World Through Their Goggles

ar123790189942547Much earlier in my career as an “outhouse” lawyer (i.e., one who works at an outside law firm, servicing corporate clients), the prevalent view among my newbie colleagues was that being the member of an in-house corporate legal staff would be a dramatic “lifestyle” change. By this we meant that one chose the in-house route to trade the higher pay (if only slightly) and chance at partnership for reasonable working hours and no pressure to measure one’s life in billable hours or cultivate client relationships.

It only took about a year before I came to understand the absolute fallacy of this view. At least the reasonable working hours part. I’m sure there are a few of those cushy in-house jobs out there, but the in-house lawyers I’ve known and reported to work as hard, often harder, than I’ve ever worked. And while outside lawyers face pressures to bill hours and attract and keep clients, our in-house counterparts can face equal or greater, albeit different, pressures.

Depending on the industry and corporate culture, our in-house counterparts have responsibilities we don’t see but exist nonetheless. There’s pressure from management that often do not understand or appreciate the value lawyers bring to deals and cases. There’s also pressure to procure and supervise the best possible legal representation, while controlling continually rising legal costs. Finally, in-house legal staff members face the same pressure we all face to manage and balance a myriad of responsibilities within the time constraints of a (hopefully) normal workday.

So enlightened, I’ve come to see how the most valuable outside lawyers are often those who sympathize with these pressures and try to make life easier for the in-house clients to whom they report. Sure, there are “bet-the-company” and unique white-collar trial lawyers who are hired for their prized trial skills and fantastic record, or highly specialized tax or real estate investment trust experts who bring rare knowledge to the table. These will always be in demand. But, like it or not, most of the rest of us are replaceable commodities. I consider myself an excellent lawyer, but I practice in a city with thousands of excellent lawyers, many of whom have the same knowledge and skills I possess. So what sets me apart?

Well, I try to recognize the challenges my in-house counterparts face and take steps to make their lives easier. This is not always easy or even possible. Cases can spiral out of control. Lawsuits sometimes expose the frailties of a company or weaknesses of their policies–not to mention mistakes or other transgressions of management or individual employees. When this happens, my in-house counterpart becomes the dreaded messenger of bad news, unappreciated or worse.

One of the best ways I’ve found to make a client’s life easier is to take steps to improve our communications and information exchange. I do this by trying to shift my perspective, so that I attempt to view the situation and our communications less from my own point of view and more through my client’s eyes. This can be a transformative exercise, and it only takes small changes to make a big difference. Here are three examples of what I mean:

1. I try to improve the frequency of my reporting on the progress of a case, even when very little is going on. The importance of frequent client reporting of events becomes clear when I shift my perspective and consider the ominous void or “sound of silence” that occurs when months pass without any kind of update.  Remember most in-house lawyers report to someone up the food chain; they do not look so good if asked about the status of a case and they cannot provide anything beyond a stale update you provided several months back. Making my in-house counterpart look good to her superiors when they ask what’s going on with a particular case makes her life meaningfully easier.

2. When I do report on an event, I also try to anticipate questions my client will ask and tailor the report accordingly. I think: what questions would I have if I was on the receiving end of this update, and I try to answer those. I’ll readily admit that I rarely anticipate every question, but I try.

3. The narrative we provide on billing invoices is also really important. We may find it lamentable that the days of lawyers billing simply “for services rendered” are long gone, but the reality is that clients look hard, not only at the time and amount we bill for a task, but also how we describe what we did. I’ve always tried to imagine myself on the receiving end of the bill. Would the time and narrative make sense to me? Would it seem reasonable? One suggestion I got from a colleague a while back was that invoices should be written so they show the progression of the case, like a report. I’m not sure if this is realistic, but I do think it makes sense to think about billing descriptions from the perspective of my client and I try to do this as much as possible.

These may seem like minor changes, but that’s the point. If we change, even if only slightly, our perspective, and try to experience the situation and our communications through our client’s eyes, we might be able to make their lives easier. Is there a better holiday gift? Ok, chocolate maybe.


A Worthy List of Potentially Unworthy Clients

9900oo88Don’t worry–I’m not going to name names. Actually, I’ve been fortunate and personally had only limited personal experience with clients who should be considered “unworthy.” But I know they’re out there. Although inability (or lack of genuine intention) to pay fees can be one major characteristic of the unworthy client (pro bono representations excluded), it isn’t the only characteristic.

J. Foonberg, in his How to Start and Build A Law Practice (1976), put together a pretty decent list of the kind of clients that can be trouble. Here are a few he suggests you avoid:

1. A client hiring you as the third lawyer on any case.

2. Clients “who proclaim loudly that you can have all the money recovered–they’re only interested in the principle.”

3. Clients who want to use your telephone, assistant and office space to conduct their business.

4. Clients who ask for a loan of money against their case.

If you pass on these clients, you’re passing up on some business–but you might be avoiding some expensive headaches, as well. In fairness to all of the unworthy clients out there, I suggest there are an equal or even far greater number of unworthy lawyers. Perhaps I’ll explore this concept in another post.


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