Client Relationships

Tom Wallerstein

I try to approach new relationships without an express agenda. In my experience, business has always come from relationships indirectly, and unexpectedly. Looking back at my firm’s engagements with 20/20 hindsight, it is undeniable that positive relationships led to the work. But that was impossible to predict looking forward.

For example, lunch with a casual acquaintance became a friendship and led to a very lucrative engagement when he later developed a conflict. I could not have predicted at the time how the lunch would later lead to important business.

In fact, had I approached the lunch with a strict agenda, I never would have formed the friendship or subsequent business. Instead of meeting with the goal of developing business, I met with the goal of having a nice lunch. It is a well-known irony that sometimes it is easier to get something when you stop trying so hard…

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Biglaw competition is getting intense. Everyone is chasing the same clients, while also deploying rearguard actions to protect institutional clients from being poached. Forget about lateral partners taking clients for a moment. I am talking about overt approaches from competing firms regarding existing matters, bearing promises of handling things more cheaply and more efficiently. In-house lawyers, under pressure to contain costs, almost have to listen. They may not act right away, but with each such approach another dent has been made in the Biglaw client-maintenance bumper.

It is no secret that in the face of declining overall demand (especially for the profit-pumping activities like mega-document reviews that were Biglaw’s joy to perform in the past), firms need to aggressively protect market share. While also seeking to grow market share. In an environment where more and more large clients are either (1) reducing the number of firms that they are willing to assign work to or (2) embracing an approach that finds no beauty contest too distasteful to engage in. So partners, at least those tasked with finding work for everyone to do, are falling back on a tried-and-true “sales approach” — putting things on sale.

How bad has it gotten?

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Conflict checks. A necessary evil in today’s incestous Biglaw, where every partner is a potential lateral, and client loyalty is fickle. Biglaw’s insurance companies demand them, so every firm goes through the motions — at sizable expense, given the size of your typical firm’s “Intake” or “Risk Management” department. Conflicts themselves are an old story, of course. Everyone would be a rainmaker, but for them. Blaming a lack of performance on conflicts is a time-honored Biglaw tradition. But who cares about excuses.

Let’s talk opportunities. There is plenty of information an enterprising Biglaw partner (or partner-aspirant) can glean from the firm’s hourly-daily-weekly conflicts report. Free information, as in not requiring the expenditure of political capital to obtain. (Practice tip: every Biglaw interaction is political in nature. At least you should treat them that way.)

Back to conflict reports. For many, they are simply another email to be skimmed and dragged into “Deleted Items” with all dispatch. A good percentage of Biglaw attorneys probably ignore them outright. That is a mistake. Why ignore a potentially valuable resource and real-time look into the health of your firm? Especially when your other option is to wait for the firm’s executive committee to update you on the firm’s performance — usually using financial metrics that present their own “management” abilities in the best possible light. Associates and other non-partners are not even usually dignified with any such information — but everyone gets a peek at the conflict check.

So what can we learn from conflict reports?

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Opening a legal bill from DLA Piper?

Here at Above the Law, we ❤ DLA Piper. The firm makes for great copy; there’s always something funny, ridiculous, or salacious going down over there.

In fairness to DLA Piper, the craziness might not be that high on a per capita basis. DLA Piper is one of the largest law firms in the world. In the most recent Global 100 rankings, DLA took second place in both total revenue and attorney headcount.

Many of the DLA Piper stories are on the lighter side. But this latest one — involving serious allegations of overbilling, apparently supported by internal DLA emails saying things like “churn that bill, baby!” — is no laughing matter….

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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….

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There’s lots of misery in our profession. Much of it occurs because lawyers didn’t realize that the practice is not like some television show glamorizing our daily lives. We are also a miserable bunch because many of us do the same thing every day, we hate what we do every day, and we deem it useless. Even if you’re one of those rare lawyers who loves what they do, you stand the risk of being around the miserable ones.

I love what I do. I don’t love it every day, and like everyone else on the planet, occasionally think about doing something else. There are days when, like everyone else, I have to deliver bad news to a client, or wonder if every conversation I am having is a conspiracy to cause me to jump out a window.

So because I love what I do and love you all so very much, I thought I’d give you some thoughts about how to actually enjoy lawyering….

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Let me regale you with two recent examples of lawyers disclosing client confidences. There’s a lesson tucked into each.

First: An acquaintance sent me the résumé of, and asked me to speak to, a young lawyer. The idea was to give some general career advice, rather than necessarily to hire the person.

I’m a pushover, so I agreed to have a cup of coffee with the relatively new lawyer. Over coffee, he (or she, but I’ll use the masculine) explained that what he liked least about the job he’d just left (which was identified on his résumé) was being asked to do unethical things. My curiosity piqued, I asked for an example. He explained that he’d been asked to draft a contract that committed his employer to violating the law as part of the contractual relationship. (Think along the lines of, “We will ship the illegal weapons to you in New York.”) My young acquaintance said that he’d gone to the general counsel, who had instructed him to draft whatever contract the business wanted. The earnest young lawyer had solved the ethical problem by drafting a contract that, when read carefully, would prohibit the illegal conduct. (Think: “Under no circumstance will any weapons of any type be shipped pursuant to this contract.”)

I’m afraid I won’t be recommending this person for any jobs. . . .

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Last week, I came across this great blog post: The Merits of Not Throwing Someone under the Bus. It touches on a few issues that come up all the time during the practice of law (and probably at any job that involves contact with other human beings, which I’m pretty sure describes a few of the legal ones out there, but correct me if I’m wrong).

In sum, Joey P. found herself in a situation in which she opted to be a team player by correcting some minor edits in a motion that another attorney in her office had prepared and then sending the document out to the client. Doesn’t sound like it would amount to anything, does it? Well, there was a big, dumb mistake in the motion, and the client emailed Joey to point out the blunder (while cc:ing a couple of partners because clients tend to be super nice and thoughtful like that).

Joey explained to her partner what had happened and wanting to be a team player, she took responsibility for not noticing the mistake made by the other attorney and decided not to rat that person out.

The way she handled the situation was pretty admirable (especially for a lawyer). There are, however, a couple of other steps that I would have taken if I had been in her situation that I think would have helped to further team dynamics and also to prevent a poor, innocent associate from being blamed for someone else’s screw-up….

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The 2012 Biglaw numbers are starting to trickle in. The American Lawyer (and the rest of the legal press) follows a near-uniform format in reporting them. Revenues — up or down x percent. Profits per partner — slightly to moderately up (if your executive committee was unable to generate higher profits, via financial sophistry or good-old de-equitizations or stealth layoffs, I am very sorry). Revenue-per-lawyer, slightly up. Feel-good comment by managing partner. Slightly passive-aggressive commentary by a “legal consultant.” Repeat, on a daily basis for about a month, until the Am Law 100 (and “interesting” Am Law 200 firms as well) is covered.

As a partner, you obviously hope your firm is reporting good news, even though the likelihood of that news reflecting on your personal situation is pretty low for most Biglaw partners. No one wants to be associated (or own the obligations of) a loser, and when everyone is proclaiming “modest” or “respectable” growth, the peer pressure can be tremendous. Especially where the Biglaw death spiral is a recognized phenomenon, and firms who report poor performance in a generally positive climate are quickly judged negatively, like a figure skater stuck doing double lutzes when everyone else is knocking out triples. Outliers, for good, but mostly for bad, stick out, and their ignominy is frequently paraded on these pages. With bonus Lat commentary for additional effect.

I for one, enjoy reading this kind of reportage…..

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I don’t live in Lake Wobegon.

I live in Lake WoeIsMe: All of the children are a little below average.

Or maybe I just have a bad attitude.

I’ll be frank: If I just met you, I assume that you’re inept. Not because you necessarily are inept, but because I’ve been blindsided too often in the past by the mistakes of people who I foolishly believed to be competent. That ain’t gonna happen again.

I understand that not everyone views the world through my gray-tinted glasses. I’ve met folks who are shocked by my attitude: “Mark, that outside lawyer from Honduras just told you that you’d win the case. Why are you acting as though we’re going to lose?”

“Because the lawyer is probably incompetent.”

“Why do you think that? He comes highly recommended by Smith.”

“Why do we think that Smith is competent? Or that Smith knows enough about the Honduran guy to have a right to judge him? My working presumption is that people are incompetent until they prove otherwise.”

“I’m shocked by your attitude, Mark. I’m exactly the opposite. When I meet new people, I always assume that they’re good at what they do.” . . .

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