client relations

Keith Lee

It’s often incredibly difficult to let things go in today’s always on, always connected world. There is a desire to multitask and switch gears at all times.

Check Twitter, check email, review a letter. Write a couple paragraphs in brief, get phone call. While on phone, pull up Facebook. Phone call ends, check Twitter, back to brief. Another lawyer sticks head in office, wants to talk about an issue in a different case. Finish conversation, back to brief, an urgent email notification pops up. Read email, not really that urgent. Reply anyway. Couple more paragraphs into brief, calendar notification goes off. Lunch scheduled with another lawyer in 25 minutes.

What are the chances that any of the work you just produced was actually of high quality?

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In last week’s column, I discussed the importance of external communication during the mediation process in securing a favorable result for a client. Many of the people who wrote to me as a result of last week’s column agreed with my general premise that mediation is an important skill for the contemporary litigator, and that mediation’s importance will only continue to grow.

A primary driver of that growth will be the continued desire of clients to reduce litigation costs. More and more, clients are recognizing the value of mediation as a means of resolving disputes early and with certainty. Accordingly, those same clients are looking to their outside counsel to guide them through the mediation process, and it is safe to assume that how outside counsel fares at that task could be a crucial factor in terms of a client’s willingness to send that lawyer more business….

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At the recent ReInvent Law NYC conference, one of the speakers, Abe Geiger, founder and CEO of Shake, used an apt term that I’d never heard before: “tiny law.” As I understood the phrase, “tiny law” refers to all of those day-to-day contractual arrangements consumers enter into every day – only through standardized forms or handshakes or oral agreements rather than formal written contracts. And that’s the raison d’être of Shake: to help formalize those millions of tiny law transactions in a simple but custom agreement generated on a mobile device.

Will Shake displace lawyers, particularly solos and smalls who are most likely to handle “tiny law” problems? At least one piece by William Peacock, from a few months back, suggested that Shake could pose a threat to lawyers. But from a solo or small perspective, Shake is actually a godsend….

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I worked at law firms for 25 years. I observed many things and heard many others.

Now I work in-house, and I have to select counsel to represent me.

If I saw you in action (or heard about your reputation) back then, will I hire you now?

It’s obvious how you could have impressed me: You could have put the client’s interests first, and you could have been breathtakingly good when analyzing issues, negotiating settlements, preparing briefs, or appearing in court.

But what could I have seen or heard that forever removed you from my subconscious “approved” list? What are the deadly sins?

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Keith Lee

Imagine you are in the audience at a majestic Broadway play. The theater full, stage set, lighting dim. The curtains part and the play begins. Drama and tragedy unfold over the next two hours. The performance compels an ovation. Done with the play, you and your company depart for dinner.

You’re in Las Vegas at the latest Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event. It’s time for the main event. The lights dim and the crowd roars. Two fighters enter the cage. The championship belt is on the line. The chain link door is locked shut and a grueling battle of wills commences. In the third round, the champion knocks out his opponent. You and your friends slowly make your way out of the arena, heading towards the Strip for a night of fun.

Both the actor and the fighter spend weeks and months in preparation for their brief time under the lights and scrutiny of the crowd. The actor memorizes her positioning, recites her lines, studies her character. The fighter drills techniques for years, conditions his body for months, and studies tape on his opponent for hours. All for one night….

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Everyone has an opinion about a trip to Disney World. Some people relish immersing themselves in the experience, while others bemoan the long lines, incessant invitations to spend money, and roaming packs of at-turns hyperactive and hysterical children.

Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle, if leaning a bit to being a Disney-phile as opposed to a Disney-phobe. Having just spent a week there with my family, I can attest to the importance of having realistic expectations regarding the trip — such as recognizing that it will not be a relaxing “vacation,” in the traditional sense. Whether physically or emotionally, anything more than a day visit can be quite draining. At the same time, it is also a lot of fun, and can be quite educational for the kids as well. And there is a lot we can learn as lawyers from the way that Disney goes about its business….

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How do you deal with a difficult client?

Don’t be ridiculous: I’m not a difficult client! You’re a difficult lawyer!

I’m pretty busy. So how many drafts of your brief do you think I want to review?

One, reflecting your very best work? Or six, with each version fixing a typo or massaging the language in footnote three, so that I can see your next iteration?

When do you think I want to see your draft?

The morning it’s due, so that I won’t have a chance even to read the thing and, if I manage to read it, you won’t have time to make corrections? Or three days before it’s due, so we have time to make the brief right?

Do you think I want to circle all the typos and cite-checking errors in the draft you send to me? Believe me, I do not want to do this. But I can’t help myself: I spent two years entombed in the sub-basement of the library at The University of Michigan cite-checking articles and imprinting the Bluebook on my brain. I’d be delighted not to notice your errors, but I don’t have that capacity. This stuff is hard-wired into my very core.

How about your run-on sentences, use of the passive voice, and other grammatical and stylistic errors?

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I’m closing in on 250 columns at Above the Law, devoting many of them to mistakes that I’ve recently witnessed (or heard about) (or, I should say to protect the privilege, simply ginned up out of whole cloth).

Remarkably, I’ve not yet written about an obvious error that occurs regularly: If you say that you will communicate with someone on a certain date, communicate with the person on that date.

Period.

Think for a minute about how often people screw this up, both in-house and at law firms.

In-house, some crisis arises. You take the helm. You send an email to the relevant folks in the organization saying, “I’ll get to the bottom of this, and you’ll know the answer by the close of business my time tonight.”

The close of business comes and goes, and what happens?

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Lawyers like to say, “I’m a lawyer, not a psychiatrist.”

If you’re dealing with people’s problems, you’re a lawyer and a psychiatrist. While clients understand you are the person hired to try and resolve their legal issues, the not-so subtle secret of a successful practice is a slew of clients that believe their lawyer actually gives a crap about how their legal issues are affecting their personal life.

In small-firm practice, you’re dealing with someone who just got served, or is going through the anxiety of deciding whether to initiate litigation. Your client may be going through the stress of trying to buy a business, or asking you to split up his family. Someone is trying to get her spouse out of jail, while the person in jail is wondering about his future. The type of legal issues that we deal with in small law firms aren’t whether the corporation will have to pay a million dollar fine or whether the bank will have to write off a loan, they’re issues that cause people to lose sleep and sometimes just freak out.

And I know, I get the calls too. Clients want to talk about things that have nothing to do with the legal work I have to do. They ask the same questions that you can’t answer: “When will this be over?” or, “Do you think (this) will happen?” You’re tired of telling the client, “I don’t know, but just be patient.” The client calls and says he “read” this, or “heard” this,” or worse, “My friend had a case like this and…”

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Years ago, I knew a lawyer who thought that business entertainment worked. He was a plaintiffs’ personal injury lawyer: “I treat a doctor to a $50 lunch, and the next day he refers a case to me. I make one phone call and settle the case for $9,000, netting a $3,000 fee. And the doctor thinks we’re even! It’s unbelievable! I can’t eat enough lunches!”

Good for him. But does it work for anyone else?

I certainly treated clients to dinners and sporting events in my day, but none of those clients (or prospects) ever hired me in return for that entertainment. I didn’t expect them to, and I’d be terribly disappointed in them if they did. My having treated a guy to a dinner doesn’t make me the best lawyer to handle his case, and he’d be nuts to hire me because the caviar was beluga.

The reverse is also true. Lots of people want to meet me, buy me a meal, or take me to a cricket match (I’m now based in London, remember?) since I’ve gone in-house. A few of the folks who buy me lunch even follow up with e-mails expressing their unhappiness that I haven’t promptly retained them: “Was it something I said? Why haven’t I heard from you, other than the thank you note?”

It was nothing you said. But why should I possibly hire you simply because you bought me lunch?

I have my own theory about why firms create large “client entertainment” budgets . . .

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