For Biglaw attorneys, it can take a while to realize the importance of face-to-face interaction in the business world. Especially for those young attorneys who start working at Biglaw firms immediately after graduating law school, and who attended law school immediately after college. In my case, I had a year of real “work experience” before starting law school, but in a very junior position.
So I was not involved, as I suspect most young people outside of tech startups are, in important business interactions. It is debatable whether someone’s experience seeking funding for an app that locates and arranges delivery of fresh donuts on a 24-hour basis counts as “real” business experience of value to lawyers. Nevertheless, many Biglaw attorneys land in their partner-discarded Aeron chair knock-off by jumping directly off the college-law school cliff of debt. And as a result have never attended an important business meeting before joining Biglaw. Ever….
The early years of a Biglaw career don’t really help the cause in terms of appreciating the importance of face-to-face communication in a business context. On the rare occasions that the typical Biglaw associate is permitted to escape the office for a deposition or client strategy meeting, it is usually communicated from the powers above that the junior associate is expected to appear “professional,” while remaining eminently ignorable. There is only so much someone can learn as a spectator, rather than as a participant.
Eventually, for those who survive to Biglaw adolescence (being a midlevel associate), the opportunities to actually participate in meetings in a substantive way increase. But those opportunities remain limited for the most part to “captive audiences” in the form of clients, opposing counsel, or colleagues. Only when our associate has reached marriageable age and found a willing spouse in the form of a Biglaw firm willing to join them in holy non-equity partnership do Biglaw attorneys begin to realize that it is quite important to actually get out of the office. And talk to real people. Because that is how business is done. Especially overseas, and no firm wants to miss out on the opportunity to service foreign clients. One way to think about it is that the further you are from your client in terms of geography, the more important it is to have met face-to-face at some point.
In a boutique environment, there is no way for any of the founding partners to avoid face-to-face meetings with potential clients. In fact, there is a premium on doing so, since you can no longer rely as much on the reflected prestige of a Biglaw partnership or association with a brand name firm. So you have to look people in the eye, take the time to travel to meet them, and do your best to establish a personal rapport to distinguish yourself from the Biglaw firm they have experience with (even if it was a negative experience, there is a real advantage to incumbency and familiarity). And to stand out from the hordes of faceless lawyers willing to jump into that little crack of opportunity that got you the meeting in the first place. Usually, the face-to-face meeting follows a series of introductory phone calls, whereby the potential client can decide whether or not you and your firm can meet their needs before committing to an in-person meeting.
Meeting in person is all about the opportunity to demonstrate character and enthusiasm. Character in the form of a willingness to sacrifice, invest, and excel in the pursuit of providing excellent client service diligently and with integrity. And enthusiasm for solving the client’s problems, and making the success of their business integral to the success of yours. It is also to time to convince the prospective client that you and your partners are men of action, and not interested in digging a billable-hour sinkhole with their project. And to reassure the existing client that you continue to value the relationship. In-person meetings are also the best time for all sides to be open about their respective goals for the engagement, and their expectations regarding a favorable result.
Technology has made it easier to communicate across distance. On any given day, I may find myself talking over Skype to clients in Shangai and Riga, or running conference calls with participants from Silicon Valley to Florida on the line. And there is no doubt that the old marketing truisms regarding the number of “touches” it takes to attract new or retain existing business still apply. The majority of those touches will be by phone or email, of course. But every once in a while — when it’s important, and matters are at a decision point — it is time to pick out a suit, pack up the carry-on, clear out a full afternoon, and go to a real meeting. To discuss real issues, and more importantly to see not only if there is business to be done, but whether the people on the other end of the table are people you want to do business with. Don’t believe me? Ask the biggest rainmaker in your group, if he or she happens to actually be in the office. Because there is a good chance that they are meeting with an existing or potential client. Face to face.
Gaston Kroub lives in Brooklyn and is a founding partner of Kroub, Silbersher & Kolmykov PLLC, an intellectual property litigation boutique. The firm’s practice focuses on intellectual property litigation and related counseling, with a strong focus on patent matters. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @gkroub.