Tag Archives: client

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.


Don’t Try This Alternative Fee Arrangement At Home

rewwThis article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

Lawyers, on the whole, make pretty poor business owners. Ask any MBA graduate or marketing guru. I never gave this a second thought during my first decade of practice, when I was too busy wondering why I wasn’t earning as much as some of my classmates (while admittedly earning more than others) to think about the bottom line. It turns out, however, that stars really must align in order for a billed hour to ripen into a collected greenback. A client is needed who not only can afford to pay, but who will pay. This axiom is apparently so obvious that most law schools don’t waste even a minute teaching it. Go figure.

Talk of alternative fee arrangements is all the rage. While opinions differ about which arrangements work, or are really “alternative,” I can identify one arrangement that is virtually guaranteed to fail, eventually: I call it the “hourly-contingency” model.

I was introduced to the mechanics of the hourly-contingency model by a colleague with whom I worked a few years back. I considered him a dunce then, and I remember him as one now. But I’ve come to realize that the hourly-contingency model as he structured it — however inadvertently — is actually a common practice by litigators everywhere, from solo practitioners to BigLaw firms.

Here’s what I’m talking about. A client finds her way into your office with a set of facts that simply scream for redress. It’s a business spat, a breached contract or a real estate deal gone bad. Her case is sufficiently textbook. There are promising facts on the plus side and manageable details on the negative. The biggest plus of all is a solvent defendant. You discuss costs; she’s prepared to pay. You sign her up and you’re off to the races.

Things start out well. The opposition balks at your demand. This was expected. You file a complaint, exchange discovery, some documents, emails, computer files, etc. Some key early depositions are conducted. The facts that made the case attractive remain strong and you continue to believe you can manage the negatives. But one thing does change: your client, so gung-ho to sue and so prompt to pay at the outset, has been slow to return calls and even slower to pay her bill. As soon as her A/R hits 90 days you call her in for the “talk.”

As you expected, money has gotten tight. Your client still wants to pursue the case and promises to pay, but just simply can’t right now. You extract a small check toward her A/R, send her on her way and privately vow to handle the case more “economically” going forward, at least until your client gets current.

Only your client never gets current. And your opposition decides to ramp things up, making it impossible to handle the case more economically. A few months and another “talk” with the client yield nothing, not even another check toward her now rapidly growing A/R. Well, you think, the case should settle soon, and she can get current with the proceeds …

Where the story goes from here doesn’t matter. Or, actually, it makes all the difference, and that proves my point. Either the case settles or gets tried, a favorable result is reached and the client pays up, or things don’t go well and you end up eating a substantial chunk of your bill. When this happened to my … er … colleague, he ended up eating about $80,000 in unpaid fees, not because the client did not want to pay, but because she couldn’t and he had allowed the case to get into this unfortunate posture.

The hourly-contingency case. You bill clients for your time, but there’s no guarantee you’ll collect unless you win. But it’s not a true contingency fee because there’s no bonus for a great result to justify the gamble of taking the case on contingency. It’s not what either the lawyer or the client intended, but both acted in concert, if purely through inertia, to allow it to happen.

How do you keep an hourly case from unintentionally going contingency? It turns out it’s not terribly complicated, but it does require discipline. And it begins with a retainer check. I left this out of the hypo above, and I could just hear readers muttering under their breath, “Of course there’s a retainer, right?”

I left out the part about the retainer because lots of lawyers do business with new clients without a retainer. It’s not because lawyers, even those who lack business acumen, do not understand the wisdom of collecting a retainer up front, it’s that we really don’t enjoy doing it. It’s an uncomfortable conversation. But it’s a necessary one. Lawyers who are diligent about getting a retainer fee are less likely to get stuck holding the bag if a case, a client, or both go south.

Lawyers and clients can agree to apply the retainer to the first billings, or for the funds to be held in client trust until the close of the case, and applied to unpaid invoices or refunded at that time. Beware: all but the wealthiest clients will want — and may expect — the retainer to be applied right away. But this would be no help at all in our hypothetical above. The upshot is that it takes discipline, both to ask for the retainer, and to retain the retainer until the case is closed and the client is current.

If it takes discipline to protect yourself with a retainer, it takes far greater discipline to recognize you’re sliding into the hourly-contingency situation and to cut the client off. This is particularly true if, as in our hypothetical, you share your client’s belief in the quality of her case. And could there be a more uncomfortable conversation? The temptation exists to believe if you just hang on a little bit longer the case will settle and you’ll get paid.

It’s only with discipline, by tempering that temptation, that you can prevent a case that’s headed for the hourly-contingency sinkhole from getting there. Leave this particular alternative fee arrangement for someone else.


Associates: The Path To Partnership Is Paved With Hull’s Rules of Client Service

Survey form with a tick placed in Outstanding checkboxLet me start by saying that I know that not everyone who graduates from law school aspires to be a partner in a big law firm. Or a small law firm. Or any law firm. I’m not suggesting it should be everyone’s or anyone’s goal. Many who make it a goal, and achieve it, come to believe it is overrated. I strongly feel from what I hear and read that partnership has become far less important to many than it was when I graduated (1993), and I doubt it was as important to lawyers of my generation compared with earlier generations. I recognize, then, that this post may not be equally interesting to everyone.

Now that I’ve cleared my throat and caused most readers to change the channel, what I want to say is that, if you do aspire to partnership there are far worse words to live by than J. Daniel Hull’s self-described “World Famous Bad-Ass, Annoying and Infuriatingly Correct 12 Rules of Customer Service.”

I can guess what you’re thinking. Hull’s damn Rules are meant to inform the ways attorneys provide service to their clients, not how associates should treat partners. If we adhere strictly to labels, that is true. But I want to argue that being a junior lawyer who works for, takes direction (and compensation) from and attempts to please senior lawyers is very similar to the experience of any lawyer who works for, takes direction (and compensation) from and attempts to please their customers, i.e., clients. Even if one never aspires to be a partner, then, being a good associate can still be terrific training for how to be a good customer service-oriented lawyer. And, Hull’s rules are a damn good start.

Let’s look at them.

1.Represent only clients you like.

I previously said in another post that, at first blush, this rule seems to suggest we all have the luxury to cherry pick clients. Clearly, most of us don’t have this luxury. Similarly, associates rarely have complete control over who assigns them work. On the other hand, just as lawyers can work over the long-term to shape their practices away from clients they don’t like, talented associates can try to shape their position within a firm. While it might never be possible to completely avoid working for a complete asshole, it should be possible to position yourself to work more often with senior lawyers you respect and like. If there’s more than one complete asshole, then you probably don’t want to be a partner at that firm.

2.The client is the main event.

If you get to work and interact directly with a client, that client is the main event. If not, then the partner who assigned you the work is the main event. If you wouldn’t think of filing or giving a client a document that contains typos or is otherwise sloppy (you wouldn’t, would you?), don’t think you’re going to gain traction with any partner who receives a crappy, typo-ridden document. “Gaining traction” is fancy law firm speak for “having a future.” If nothing else, have your assistant proof read everything before you give it to anybody.

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

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

Here I suggest you to strive to deliver work that changes the way many partners think about many associates. I witnessed first hand during my career the erosion of how many partners regard associates. I trace it to the point in time when a handful of very lucrative Silicon Valley law firms decided to give the historically high paying New York law firms a run for their money in terms of associate compensation. This seemed to coincide roughly with the point at which late Gen X and early Gen Y law students started graduating. The buzzwords I heard a lot around that time (and I wasn’t yet a partner) was some variation of “undeserved sense of entitlement.”

The good news for associates is that many partners are now so underwhelmed with the commitment of more recent law school graduates that it’s actually not that hard to stand out. In my crude, empirically unsound and untested estimation, a Gen Y associate who puts in the same effort as earlier generations of associates could be a rock star at some law firms. On the other hand, I recognize that many Gen Y lawyers have a different sense of priorities than earlier generations, which I suspect is why partnership is not the brass ring it once was.

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

Like most clients, most partners like to be kept informed. If you find yourself working with someone who has limited tolerance for minutiae (and they’re out there) be sensitive to that and adjust accordingly.

6.When you work, you are marketing.

This is true whenever you do anything professionally, whether it’s for a client or a partner.

7.Know the client.

Know the partner. Take an interest in her practice and her clients. Think: how can I make her job/life/career easier. Take ownership of cases, deals or assignments and try to think how you can contribute more to the big picture. Don’t be afraid to make suggestions, but be careful not to do things unilaterally that might run contrary to the lead lawyer’s strategy. When in doubt, ask.

8.Think like the client–help control costs.

Think like the partner who is attempting to think like the client. Part of this is understanding and appreciating where you fit in. Ideally, you bring value to the client since it theoretically costs less for you to spend your time doing a task. This should also have a three-fold benefit to the partner and the law firm. On the one hand, it should free up the partner to spend less time doing more routine tasks and more time thinking strategically and doing more sophisticated tasks requiring experience, training and judgment for which clients are willing to pay higher fees. It should also free up the partner to spend more time marketing and bringing in new business which helps the firm grow. Finally, if leveraged properly, associates are profitable. While partners should not shrink from the responsibility of training, and cutting associate time from the bill is often appropriate, the more the above runs like a well-oiled machine the better for everyone involved.

9.Be there for clients–24/7.

I was going to say, “That’s why the firm bought you that iPhone 5,” but that’s not really what I mean. Perhaps it’s better to say that many clients expect their most trusted advisors to be there when they’re needed, without regard to day of the week or hour of the day. Associates that make it clear they will do what they can to recognize and meet this expectation will tend to be viewed as more valuable than associates who do not. I will admit that, as an associate, I jealously guarded my time away from work. As I started developing my own clients, however, I came to realize that, in doing this, I was just putting off the inevitable, since clients really do expect their trusted advisors to be available 24/7. It’s just part of the job which, as we know, is not for everybody.

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

It’s okay to make mistakes. But own mistakes when you make them. Resist the temptation to conceal mistakes or shift blame to others. Clients see right through this and so do partners.

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

Being graded on citizenship doesn’t stop when you leave grade school. Whether it’s made explicit or not, one thing partners consider when making advancement decisions is how well you fit in. Whether the office has 3 or 130 people, the ability to work well with others is important. If you’re rude to other lawyers, disrespectful or downright mean to staff, it can hinder your advancement. Many firms, including my own, pride themselves on having “very few sharp elbows.” Regardless how talented you may be, if you have “sharp elbows,” or an outsized sense of your own importance, or you’re just a jerk, it can make it hard for you to gain traction.

12.Have fun.

If you’re not having fun as an associate, it’s unlikely the practice of law is going to become fun if/when you become a partner, and your responsibilities extend far beyond doing great work and billing lots of hours, to include marketing and management responsibilities. If you’re not having any fun, maybe it’s time to think about doing something else.

So, if partnership is what you’re after, try applying Dan Hull’s “annoying and infuriatingly correct” Rules  to the service you provide.


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.


A Potted Plant? Eh, Not So Much.

ghg6rtrTwo blawg posts last week caught my eye. Both discussed preparing and defending witnesses at deposition. At the Lawyerist, Chris Bradley talked about his experiences defending a client in his first judgment-debtor examination. His title for the piece, which I mistakenly took to be ironic, was: How To Defend A Deposition: Just Show up. The other post, by Philly Law Blog blogger Jordan Rushie, took the assignment more seriously, and provided better guidance, likely because he has more experience. In his post, Rushie credited Max Kennerly with the notion that “[i]f you prepare your witness properly [for deposition], you should be able to just be a potted plant.”

Let me say first that I’m not sure whether Max Kennerly ever made that statement. It sounds pretty good, provided you don’t, as Jordan Rushie fortunately did not, take it completely at face value. What concerns me is that young lawyers reading Bradley’s post at the Lawyerist and contemplating Kennerly’s remark, might mistakenly conclude that adequately preparing your client or witness for deposition is enough. Or nearly enough.

It’s not enough. Or nearly enough.

I agree that preparing your client or witness is surely the single most important part of your job in defending the deposition. Clients or witnesses who have never been though litigation are quite literally astonished when I suggest that we spend a half or full day preparing for their deposition. And that’s often not enough. I once spent three full days preparing a sexual harassment defendant for his deposition–and I was still unsatisfied with the result. So yes, Max Kennerly is right that witness preparation is the first priority.

But even if you spent a full week preparing the witness (yes, we do spend weeks preparing certain key witnesses, particularly if they do not speak English or the subject matter is particularly complex), your job is not done. There is your responsibility to “preserve the record” meaning making objections when questions are not technically correct. Jordan Rushie got that right.

But, in my humble view, adequately preparing the witness and interposing appropriate objections is still not enough.

My goal at every stage of the proceedings in a lawsuit is control. I’m not so naive that I think I can actually control very much. There are about a thousand things in every lawsuit that are simply beyond my control, the top of the list being the judge. But that doesn’t mean I don’t try to control every single nuance as best as I can. I’m a control freak. Control. Control. Control.

When I present a witness for his or her deposition, I am being forced to relinquish control over a very important aspect of the process. In civil litigation, at least in my experience, depositions and documents win or lose a case. There’s very little I can do about bad paper. If there’s a bad document out there and my opposition has properly asked for it, and it’s not privileged, then I’ve got to produce it and we’re stuck with the consequences.

Depositions are different. Unlike bad documents, depositions don’t just exist. A deposition is more of a process. Even when we’re done preparing and I object whenever necessary, my opponent still must ask the right question and get a damaging answer before the evidence comes into existence. That’s a big leap, and I want to make it as difficult as possible to cross that chasm. And I’m not talking here about inappropriate objections, improper instructions not to answer, or being a difficult jackass, or other ethically-challenged conduct. But I do want my opponent to know I’m listening closely, to every word, and I’m not going to make it any easier for him/her than I absolutely have to. Otherwise, what am I getting paid hundreds of dollars an hour to do? A well-trained monkey can object when questions are “vague and ambiguous.”† I think our role is bigger than that.

I learned pretty early that you want to create a “tight” environment from the start. By this, I mean that, even if I generally have an extremely cordial relationship with my opponent (and I usually do), I don’t want him or her to think that this particular deposition is going to be easy or fun. I want him or her to feel that our time on the record is “borrowed time,” that he/she is taking up my client/witness’s extremely valuable time, that we’re inconvenienced, that his/her goal should be to finish up as quickly as possible. It’s been my experience that, in most instances, this results in a shorter deposition. Shorter deposition = less chance of damaging testimony from my client/witness = a good thing.

Another way I create a “tight” environment is by interposing a fairly stiff objection early in the deposition. By early I mean in the first 20-30 minutes. This signals to my opponent that I’m listening, and that I don’t intend to put up with any baloney. I do try to avoid speaking objections, because they’re unprofessional. On the other hand, if I need to say additional words to fully state the objection or my nonspeaking objections aren’t getting anywhere, then I’ll say what needs to be said. Again, while it may be my opponent’s deposition, I’m going to retain as much control as I can.

I also want to dictate when we take breaks. At least every hour. I don’t want my witness getting fatigued, hungry, exhausted or even comfortable. When he/she gets comfortable, that’s exactly when the filters in his/her brain start to shut off and the damaging evidence is created.

I’m also not above verbally bitch-slapping scolding any opposing counsel who gets too high-handed with my client. Again, I’m not getting paid several hundreds of dollars an hour to sit back and watch some unprofessional lawyer abuse my client. I’ve come to believe that civility really is best 99.9% of the time. But, if an opponent is abusing my client with his/her examination, I have two choices: I can terminate the deposition or I can push back a bit. If I give some push back, perhaps we can alter the course and finish the deposition without bothering the judge. If I terminate the deposition, motion practice is sure to follow and this is costly, and the judge might not see things my way.

We sometimes walk a fine line when defending depositions. I don’t want to be obstructionist, or an asshole. But when we’re on the record, my job is to do everything ethically within my power to prevent that record from containing evidence that is damaging to my client’s case and/or helpful to my opposition. I respectfully disagree with the notion that this obligation is satisfied by “just showing up” or even by just making objections.

†I mean no disrespect to monkeys, trained or otherwise.


Lawyers: The Many Hats We Wear

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It’s amazing how I rushed into law school with no real idea what I would be doing every day of my working life. I had an inkling I would be on the litigation side of things (though I’m not even sure I knew what the word “litigation” meant). Like anyone whose imagination was nourished on a steady diet of television, I thought being a lawyer meant my days would be spent emasculating evil, dishonest witnesses in a packed, captivated courtroom. That is, when I wasn’t driving my Porsche . . . or playing golf . . . or having a power lunch at the Club . . . or whatever.

Imagine my surprise when I graduated, passed the bar and reality set in! In truth, I figured out long before graduation that most days I would be the one getting emasculated, chained to a desk, eating my power lunch at the downtown YMCA. (Don’t laugh. . . the YMCA is a Club, isn’t it?)

What’s interesting, though, is not that those golden trial-lawyer-as-cross-exam-Ninja moments are so few and far between, but rather how varied my job description can actually be from day-to-day. While I do spend the majority of my working hours litigating (i.e., complaining, pleading, advising, calendaring, moving, appearing, arguing, deposing, drafting, researching, responding, conferencing, serving, trying, introducing, direct examining, cross-examining, re-direct examining, re-cross examining, filing, noticing, negotiating, appealing, taxing, counseling, averring, answering, BILLING, reviewing, revising, disclosing, amending, second-amending, designating, counter-designating, etc.), it is surprising how much of my working day I actually spend doing none of these things.

What else do I do? It depends on the client. But in some ways I’ve come to think of it as a service as important (if less lucrative) as any of the -ing activities I listed above: I act as a Resource to my clients. More specifically, as a lawyer I gain unparalleled backstage access into my client’s “kitchen” (not just restaurant clients, either). And it turns out that what they often need is not a hired gun to fight legal battles, but rather an objective sounding board or a referral source. This part of the job is particularly rewarding with new or emerging companies because I’m bringing value by my involvement that a “hired gun” litigator just can’t bring. The more intimately I get to know a client’s business, the more interesting all aspects of my job become.

I take great care when I refer clients or contacts to other professionals. Every referral reflects ultimately on me, and I feel I have a stake in the outcome. So, while I might explore and involve myself in a variety of networks for the specific purpose of making contacts and business referral sources, I take pride that any decision I make to connect a client or contact with a professional is informed by the kind of cold, objective judgment I would use in selecting a doctor to treat me or my family.

When we take our role as a resource to our clients as seriously as we take the role of practicing lawyer we create the possibility of going past a mere attorney-client relationship. We partner. We jointly venture. We approach the most coveted role any lawyer can ever hope for: the Trusted Advisor.


Lawyering Under The Influence Of Your Own Spiked Kool Aid?

innjuujEvery one of us carries a measure of optimism whenever we decide to undertake something. Undoubtedly owing to a cluster of deep-seated personality defects, I find I often see a glass as half empty. I don’t begrudge this aspect of my personality; it tends to make me a conservative investor and a boring gambler.

Most successful plaintiff lawyers I’ve worked with, however, seem more often than not to be glass half-full types. Let me clarify what I mean for the benefit of any readers who aren’t familiar with the American system of jurisprudence. I’m referring specifically to lawyers who agree to take on clients and cases on a contingency basis. Under these circumstances, a lawyer agrees to represent a client or clients in a lawsuit without any fees unless and until there is some recovery, by settlement or judgment. There is always an investment of the lawyer’s time and often the lawyer also agrees to advance the costs of litigation against the chance of recovery. If the case or claim is successful, the lawyer is reimbursed the costs she advanced and she also receives an agreed upon percentage of the recovery.

It’s not difficult to see how one would have to be something of an optimist to take any case on contingency, though a better quality case against a deeper-pocketed defendant tends to reduce the risk. In fact, some of the wealthiest practicing lawyers earned their fortunes through contingency fee litigation.

Not long ago, I handled a case against someone so optimistic about his client’s case that he was literally “drunk” on his own Kool Aid. So drunk, in fact, that he didn’t sober up until after he lost the trial and his client hired another lawyer to represent her in her appeal. It wasn’t that his client had a drop dead loser of a case. The case actually had some sexy facts; the kind of facts that can make jurors rock back and forth in their seats with interest. Things could have gone the other way, and he could have won. But it wasn’t that good of a case, and he could have and should have tried earnestly to settle before rolling the dice with the jury. He was just too buzzed to see the glaring weaknesses or put a realistic settlement value on the case. He never got within a range in which it made the remotest sense for my clients to make any serious offer–so they didn’t.

I recognize the counter-argument can seem compelling. After all, some of the biggest jury verdicts came out of situations in which David took on Goliath and prevailed against all odds. And I’ve already admitted I tend to see the glass a half empty. But what set my “drunkard” opponent apart from another, wiser lawyer was his steadfast refusal to give any weight to the opinions of two separate neutrals (a mediator he had selected and a USDC Magistrate Judge sitting as a settlement officer), who both told him he was being ridiculous in his expectations and wrong on a pretty important issue of the law.

Is it possible to be a “sober” optimist? Sure. One way is to pay attention if multiple neutrals (including one you selected) suggest you’re off the mark. Of course, neutrals may not always be truly neutral, even when you’re paying them to (i.e., when they’re leaning on you in a mediation). Another approach is to submit your facts and arguments, including what you expect the other side will say, to a mock jury–even a cheap one like I described here. I’ve also known lots of lawyers (even really skilled ones) who will ask every colleague they know what they think about a set of facts, just to see if they’re missing something. There’s nothing wrong with this, as long as you don’t inadvertently waive the attorney-client privilege.

One final thought: being a “drunk” optimist is fine: (1) as long as you’re gambling only with your own time or money; or (2) just like elective surgery, if you fully inform the client of all circumstances, including the risks (or likelihood) of walking away with nothing, and the client understands and is just as eager to roll the dice, then by all means roll the dice.


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