Client Relationships

Biglaw firms have a problem. They can’t get their senior partners to retire. Or to pass along their clients to younger partners fast enough.

The reasons for this unwelcome phenomenon are straightforward. First, today’s Biglaw senior partners are making too much money. Would you retire if you were making seven figures and billing 1200 to 1500 hours a year? Of course not. Especially if you are helping to support your children. Or in this age of the 70-year-old rainmaker, a grandchild’s “education” as a communications major at the top party school in this year’s rankings.

Kidding aside, I know that many senior partners have very valid reasons for continuing to maintain their Biglaw practices. But that does not mean that what works for them at an individual level is what is good for Biglaw as a whole. In fact, I think the “sticky senior” issue is the greatest long-term threat to the continued viability of many Biglaw firms….

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Business development sometimes seems like an impossible task. Winning new clients, or generating new business from existing clients, isn’t easy. If you doubt this, check out in-house columnist Mark Herrmann’s excellent column, Nothing You Can Say Can Cause Me To Retain You (explaining all the strategies for trying to obtain his business that won’t work). The challenge of getting new clients explains why so many firms resort to effectively trying to buy clients, by luring lateral partners and hoping their books of business come with them.

But still, every now and then a law firm does get hired by a new client. And every now and then a law firm gets fired by an existing or even longstanding client (even though it’s not easy to displace incumbent counsel, especially if they’re decent).

Why do clients hire and fire their outside counsel? A new survey offers some answers….

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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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I am not sure what I agreed to, or what button I selected, but yesterday Linkedin sent network invitations to seemingly everyone on the planet with whom I have ever corresponded by email. For the past two days I have received numerous invite acceptances; my once small network is now seemingly unmanageable in scope. However, some really great news has accompanied many emails. Several people with whom I have spoken over the years have written to update me on their job hunting – and the news has been universally good. I have always held the identities of those who have written in confidence, and I will continue that practice. But, I can comfortably report that jobs have been attained in government work, private practice, and in-house. The economy is tough, and hiring prospects are not back to mid-90s levels, but there are positions to be had, and to the most tenacious go the spoils.

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About a year ago, we brought our readers some stats on the Biglaw firms that were representing some of America’s biggest companies. While that information was interesting, it only covered firms that were currently involved in litigation on behalf of Fortune 100 companies, leaving all of the worthy dealmakers out in the cold. To make matters worse, we only knew which firms were in court the most frequently on behalf of corporate clients — we knew nothing about their success rates.

Now, we’ve got a list that general counsel will really be interested in — a list of the Biglaw firms that are the best of the best in terms of client service. Are you sick of your outside counsel giving you the runaround? Are you tired of receiving deliverables that are off the mark?

These are the firms that have been rated the “absolute best” by general counsel…

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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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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of The ATL Interrogatories. This recurring feature will give notable law firm partners an opportunity to share insights and experiences about the legal profession and careers in law, as well as about their firms and themselves.

Jim Maiwurm, chair and global CEO of Squire Sanders, has more than 30 years of experience as a business and transactional lawyer. His work involves the representation of a diverse range of businesses — from technology startups to Fortune 50 manufacturers — in private equity infusions, public offerings and sophisticated domestic and international acquisitions, dispositions, financings and joint ventures.

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The legal profession has changed greatly over the almost seven years since the launch of Above the Law. Do these changes amount to a paradigm shift? Or are they just a temporary blip that will eventually be reversed?

Professor David Wilkins, Director of the Program on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School, is one of the most astute and well-informed observers of law as both a profession and an industry. In his recent keynote at the NALP annual education conference, Professor Wilkins considered these questions, and also shared his predictions about the future of the legal profession….

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Although I won’t name names here (because my employer is, among other things, the insurance broker to the stars, and I can’t afford to offend clients or potential clients), I just stumbled across an article that indirectly told me how to pick outside counsel.

In a relatively high-profile situation, a government entity recently had to retain an outside law firm. The government naturally retained an outside adviser to help the government make its choice. (How else could one possibly pick counsel?)

The outside adviser — I think you’d call the outfit a management consultant, although the website left me a little confused — has lots of MBAs on staff, but there’s not a lawyer to be seen. No matter: The MBAs created a questionnaire for the law firms to fill out, and the law firm that accumulated the most points won the business.

This is great! It’s time (once again) for me to stop thinking and start copying! We’ll revamp our whole system for choosing counsel! In the future, we’ll give the law firms who want our business a form to complete. We’ll add up the points — even I can do that. And then we’ll choose the law firm with the most points, thus retaining the best firm in the world to handle our matter through an objectively defensible selection process, in case anyone ever wants to second-guess our choice of counsel.

Shoot! If only I’d gone to business school, I could have been this smart! Let’s take a look at the questionnaire, so I’ll know the form that I’m copying to choose counsel for my next case . . . .

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