Biglaw, In-House Counsel, Partner Issues, United Kingdom / Great Britain

Buying In: Superplease?

Client service. The heartbeat of Biglaw. The area where every firm has to improve. Perpetually. Biglaw hamsters in overdrive. All to make the clients happy. Sit back and admire your Biglaw firm’s willingness to go the “extra mile” by listening to its clients. We might even see a client paraded before our partners once a year. (See my column on improving partner meetings by having guest appearances from clients.)

We are taught happy clients are well-paying clients. And clients that will refer their dissatisfied colleagues at other companies to experience our brand of Biglaw magic. We love clients. Almost as much as the consultants do on House of Lies, a show that provides outrageous, if funny, explorations of the client-service provider dynamic in modern-day America. (A fun business development-training program would involve watching a series of client-interactions from the show and learning from them. Better than listening to Rainmaker X pretend the reason for his multimillion-dollar book was not his maternal grandfather’s business dealings and connections.)

Truly thinking about client service can be all-consuming, especially for a younger partner like myself. No one is giving me clients. I have to fight for them in the marketplace. I love it, but it is difficult and you need patience.

But rather than focus on the process of developing clients, let’s discuss the art of “superpleasing” clients….

Lawyers who “superplease” can expect repeat business (until the next beauty contest, that is). “Superplease” is the goal. And it is what a senior partner at Cleary’s London office by the name of Michael McDonald (not the Michael McDonald playing Carmel, Indiana on April 21st — sorry Doobie Brothers fans) wants his staff and junior lawyers to aim for in treating clients.

While some of the commenters over at Roll on Friday are not too impressed with Mr. McDonald’s advice and admonitions, he is on the right track. He is also a credible source, since he is a member of two prestigious clubs: “Chambers certified” and “$1,000+ bucks per hour.” I have no doubt he knows how to deliver for his clients. And there is nothing wrong with setting expectations for your fellow service members on how to achieve that aim. So he wrote a list of things to do — a long list.

The problem with lists is that nuance is missing. While I agree in the abstract with nearly everything in the now-famous “Superplease memo,” there is an element of danger in everyone following its dictates in full. For example, I am not one of those partners who keeps a super-tight leash on associates contacting my clients directly. My rule is that it is fine, until you screw up. And screwing up in that context is subjective, and usually involves the associate showing a lack of sensitivity to a client’s concern. Or showing a lack of sensitivity to the image we are trying to cultivate for that client.

Ultimately my preference is for the clients to “meet and hear from” the team working on their project. There is a need for balance, however, which involves balancing my need for the client to develop as much of a “connection” as they can with my team, with my recognition that no one is as invested in my client’s success as I am. So I am a little wary of having my associates send e-greeting birthday cards to my client’s kids. The ones that she barely sees, and doesn’t really appreciate being made part of her professional interactions.

To me it comes down to “personalizing.” The better approach, at least initially, is for us as Biglaw lawyers to personalize our clients. Be sensitive to their personal and professional lives, and see them as something more than a faceless corporation that pays our bills. Basically, think along the lines of what we would try to sell in front of a jury when facing a mass-tort claim. But personalizing does not mean “get personal.” Especially not right away. Unless your new flame is referring you business, or your brother’s company is getting taken over. Avoiding off-putting personal interactions with clients takes time, and some building of trust and mutual accomplishment.

Looking at my own practice, I realize it has taken years (and some well-appreciated repeat business) for me to start thinking of my closest clients as personal friends. People I would invite to a party I was throwing. It simply takes time to get to that stage. Or the stage where you can even separate the business and the personal, where you can understand that your client needed to throw a case to someone else, for reasons unrelated to your relationship. And with the exception of friends who became clients, I have yet to have a client break into “come over for dinner” territory. I believe in professional distance, especially since I am the one being paid for my work. That means not trying to intertwine my personal life with my clients. So I distinguish between a client’s willingness to bring me into their personal lives, and the need for me to return the favor. I don’t need to — a business dinner is fine, even in exchange for an invitation to a client’s home BBQ.

You do not have to agree with my personal approach to realize that advising junior staff to start heading down that road too quickly risks putting some clients in discomforting situations. So instruct everyone to “personalize” right away, but avoid “getting personal” until it becomes a natural consequence of the interactions you are having with the client. In today’s Biglaw, you likely won’t get a second chance with a client. They have too many other options to tolerate even the most minor of missteps, and personal infractions are likely to be treated more harshly than professional ones. Be careful.

Going back to the list, it is worth reviewing. See what you are doing and what you are not. Ask yourself why not, and start looking for opportunities to fix what needs fixing in your client interactions. Consider whether your relationships with clients are level-appropriate, and whether they seem to be getting stronger or weaker. Read all the good stuff put out by ATL’s resident curmudgeon on this topic. Talk to partners who seem to “have a way” with clients. Copy what they do — but only the things you can pull off naturally.

Motivation? That there are an army of Biglaw lawyers out there who would kill for a crack at your clients. You share a bathroom with some of them.

How do (or would) you “superplease” clients? Let me know by email or in the comments.


Anonymous Partner is a partner at a major law firm. You can reach him by email at atlpartnercolumn@gmail.com.

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