Litigators, Midsize Firms / Regional Firms, Practice Pointers, Small Law Firms, Trials

What Kind Of Clients Do You Have In Flyover Country?

Ed. note: This is a new column from a person who didn’t just go from Biglaw to a smaller office, he went from big bad New York City to someplace where they care about the Big Ten network. It’s a different client roster and a different life.

As promised, the topic of this column is the difference in client service when you move to a smaller regional firm. First things first: I see from the comments on my last article that many of you are curious about the clients I represent here in Real America. Apparently it is very hard for some of you to believe that the types of clients that you have on the coasts also exist here in the Midwest. Believe it or not, we have banks! We have real estate investment trusts! We have life-science companies! We have parts manufacturers for any number of industries! We have mortgage servicers! We have large retailers with labor and HR issues!

And because these things exist, they need help from attorneys like us….

Of course you’re saying to yourself — with a hearty chortle, as you light your cigar with a flaming $100 bill — “But Middle Man…. why would they choose to work with a regional firm instead of one of the Vault 15/50/100?” Well, there are a number of reasons why our clients eschew the services of Biglaw for us here in Midlaw:

1. When working with local officials and regulators, it is always better to be represented by local counsel. Local counsel has the relationship with these officials because many of these official used to work for… these local regional firms.

2. When you hire an attorney from my firm, you get service primarily from that attorney. When I was in New York, rarely were the billing partners actually involved in the work being billed on their behalf. This is absolutely not the case at my current firm. Even if the billing partner handles a different type of work entirely, they will be involved in all of the strategic decisions critical to the case.

3. From a litigation perspective, the judiciary here is much more insular and familiar (especially in the civil division) with the individual lawyers and firms, so it’s best to be represented by a local firm so that the local judges “know” your attorneys.

4. This goes without saying, but the billing rate is so much lower than it is for firms on the coasts, so it really makes sense for large clients to go with regional firms for large-scale litigation for all types whenever possible.

5. Many of these cases are much more likely to go to trial, so the client needs attorneys with actual trial experience. And let’s face it, most of the partners at Biglaw have less trial experience in their entire career than the partners at my current firm get in one year. Our clients want trial attorneys for trials.

Of course, at a regional firm there are different expectations for what kind of service a client anticipates from their attorneys as well. Yes, we are still expected to respond in a timely fashion when asked for assistance, and these requests still come at times that are inconvenient for us, but that is what the money is for. I will say that there are injunctions and emergency motions for stay that get filed here and there, but for the most part since I have been here I find myself being asked to respond to fire drills much less often than I did in New York.

The biggest change, related to point 2 above, is that clients interact directly more often with us in the trenches on these cases than they did when I was in Biglaw. I am much more likely to get an email directly from a client asking for strategic guidance than I ever was in my practice in New York. Many of my clients are smaller companies that don’t have a general counsel, so I find myself playing that role at times, offering general advice that is tangentially related to topics arising from the original engagement.

Out here the cases are smaller. Instead of working on cases worth $100 million, I now work on cases that are worth $1 million or $10 million. However, although the cases are worth less, the stakes are much higher. If a hedge fund, a bank, or a Fortune 500 company loses a $100 million case, it might affect the share price a bit, but other than that, no one actually cares about losing that much money because it is a drop in the bucket compared to quarterly revenues or returns.

That is not the case here.

Often these are cases where a party’s entire personal wealth or the existence of the company depends on the outcome of the case. Things get intense in a hurry, and as the attorney representing the parties, you are giving as much business (and sometimes emotional) advice as legal advice. At the same time, this puts a bit more pressure on you to get the advice right. It is no longer an abstract document sent to a partner who sends it to senior counsel who passes it on internally. It is someone who has your email address and is likely to call you and ask you for more advice on the fly. This is very different from my Biglaw experience.

Our clients watch their bills like hawks. I have to be very careful writing the descriptions of what I do, including getting prior written approval to doing some tasks that people wouldn’t think twice about in New York. To be fair, I never had carte blanche to bill away in New York, but here there’s a constant reminder that we have to be cost-conscious, which results in me cutting meetings short, leaving the line edits to my assistant, and delegating menial discovery-related tasks to paralegals instead of junior associates or doing them myself.

Really though, the basics have not changed all that much. Clients still expect us to be responsive to their demands, efficient with our time, diligent, and thorough with our work product. They still pay their bills late and are not forthcoming with the information you need to defend or prosecute their claims. That’s life anywhere in the practice, and you need to get the hang of it sooner rather than later if you want to stick around in this business.

P.S. For those of you curious about the Middle Man’s ride… I drive a Dodge Stratus.

Earlier: Welcome To Flyover Law

Middle Man is a former Biglaw associate plying his trade in the middle west.

(hidden for your protection)

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