Partners love to emphasize to candidates who are interviewing that their firm provides not only “early responsibility,” but also abundant “client contact.” Associates who interview eat that stuff up. “Client contact” sounds like the epitome of what being a lawyer is all about.
But sometimes client contact might not be all it’s cracked up to be. For an associate, talking to a client often has little short term upside and lots of potential downside. If you give good advice, the partner is likely to take the credit for it. If you give bad advice, you better believe you will take the blame.
Once an attorney is blessed with significant client contact, they learn rather quickly that the much-vaunted experience can be rather overrated. More times than not, a ringing phone does not a happy lawyer make. Just consider some of the reasons why clients are likely to be calling….
They may be calling to ask a particular question or to get an update about their case. Answering their question or giving them the update doesn’t usually advance the ball in the litigation or transaction you are handling. Your task list doesn’t get any shorter when you are explaining what you did, or why you did it, or what remains to be done. When you are sweating to make a filing deadline, you may be less than enthused to explain for the fifth time why you are filing yet another amendment to your patent infringement contentions.
Often clients don’t understand many of the nuances of what you are doing for them, and they may not appreciate all the work involved in the representation. When a client expresses a mistaken view to you as an associate, or simply expresses frustration, sometimes there’s nothing you can say and nothing that you need to add or do. As with all client interactions, answering a question or trying to clarify is fraught with the danger of screwing it up.
Another common reason a client might be calling is to discuss the bill. Of course, “discuss” is a euphemism for question, complain or rant. I’m flattered to have experienced the unusual exceptions, but generally a client doesn’t call just to commend you on your efficiency and fairness. Talking about fees owed is one of the least pleasant aspects of being a lawyer, and associates who glamorize client contact should consider that at least at the partner level, many client communications are likely to be uncomfortable conversations about the bills, not abstract discussions of constitutional law or trial strategy.
These downsides notwithstanding, young lawyers will continue to clamor for ever increasing client contact. Generally, associates believe that if they are given the opportunity to interact with clients, they will establish a relationship with the client separate and apart from the relationship that the client has with the relationship partner. Client contact is thus viewed as directly related to establishing a relationship that is the foundation for future business generation from that client.
There is some truth to this. Every conversation is a step in building a relationship and, as I have written before, building a book of relationships is a key to business development. If you prove to be a consistent source of good advice, a client may, over time, take to calling you in the first place instead of calling the partner. This is especially true if you frequently CHECK YOU EMAIL and prove to be more accessible than the partner.
On the other hand, associates shouldn’t be so naïve as to overestimate their role or impact they are having. A client who is paying hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars a year to a firm is going to have a strong relationship with the partner in charge of the matter, and that is the person whose advice and counsel they ultimately will seek. An associate is not going to be magically transformed into the relationship partner just because he explained the scope of the document requests that were received or helped to schedule a deposition.
Be that as it may, I still think associates are wise to seek out client contact even while acknowledging the inherent limitations and downsides.
For one thing, by speaking to clients, you will actually practice the skills needed to develop other relationships that will foster your business development. For example, interacting with clients gives you a chance to learn about clients’ businesses. Over time you will appreciate that clients usually view problems very differently than outside counsel does. Learning to listen to and truly appreciate client concerns is a difficult skill that will be invaluable to your efforts to develop business as a partner.
Moreover, even if you will not displace the partner as the point of contact between the client and the firm, you might at least become the client’s preferred associate. For an associate, there are few things better for your career than for a client to request that you be staffed on a particular matter.
Even if the short term benefits are elusive, you’ve got to try to see a little further. Sometimes the depth of the relationship an associate has formed with a client does not become apparent until the associate leaves the firm. When a rainmaking partner leaves his firm, everyone expects that certain clients will go with him. But if an associate leaves his firm for another, the partnership likely will be shocked if it learns that one or more clients are leaving, too.
Because the client’s strongest relationship will be with a partner, an associate taking a client with him is rare. More common is an associate who leaves Biglaw for small, and is able to gain business from a client who maintains the relationship with the Biglaw firm.
When I left my Biglaw firm, for example, my partner and I were fortunate to have several clients who asked that we continue working on their matters in a co-counsel relationship with our former firm.
That arrangement worked out well for everyone. We also had numerous client relationships from our Biglaw days that we were able to convert into new business for our boutique by taking on smaller matters that our former firm had no interest in handling.
* * *
The next time an interviewer promises you significant client contact, you can score points by showing that you don’t have such a naïve view as to think that he is promising a bed of roses. You can commiserate with all the challenges inherent in speaking to clients, while at the same time embracing the bigger picture and showing that you understand why, despite the downsides, client contact is indeed worth seeking out.
Tom Wallerstein lives in San Francisco and is a partner with Colt Wallerstein LLP, a Silicon Valley litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on high tech trade secret, employment, and general complex-commercial litigation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.