Much 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.