Client Relationships

Over the last three weeks, we have heard from an In-House Insider, an opinionated source of insight into Biglaw-client relations — see here, here, here, and below. As with the three prior installments, the only changes I made to the Insider’s words were those done to protect their identity, and Insider was given the opportunity to revise their points once I added the questions and commentary. Again, I thank Insider for the candid observations and thoughtful opinions on these core issues….

AP: Any serious observer of Biglaw can see that firms continue to struggle adapting associate development to the new state of Biglaw-client relations. What can Biglaw learn from corporate clients like yourself on that front?

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Over the last two weeks, we have heard from an In-House Insider, an opinionated source of insight into Biglaw-client relations — see here, here, and below. As with the two prior installments, the only changes I made to the Insider’s words were those done to protect their identity, and Insider was given the opportunity to revise their points once I added the questions and commentary. Again, I thank Insider for the candid observations and thoughtful opinions on these core issues.

AP: How firms are viewed from a value perspective is often very difficult to gauge from the outside. What criteria do you use to determine if a firm is delivering services to your company appropriately from a billing perspective?

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I wrote last week about ideas to build a book of business. My main point was to start small and branch out from there. I mentioned how, as a young and naïve (ok, ignorant) associate, I was quickly disabused of the idea that I would soon be able to waltz into Pfizer and pick up some strands of litigation.

Then I received the following email in my Gmail account. It is a well-written counterpoint to my argument. A partner in New York City argues that starting small is a recipe for staying small.

I reprint his email (largely unedited) below….

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Tom Wallerstein

Some attorneys think they are unable to transition from Biglaw to opening a solo or small firm boutique because they lack the ability to generate business. They might think, “If I can’t generate business at my current firm, with all of its vast resources, goodwill, and prestige behind me, then how could I ever hope to generate business on my own?”

This kind of negative thinking is pernicious, and based on a number of fallacies….

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In this new year, since there have been several columns of late of the “confessional” type, I thought I might join the bandwagon. Since the overwhelming majority of inquiries from readers regard how best to market themselves to start to build a book of business, let me tell the truth: you can’t. At least not through me, or anyone in a position like mine.

I just passed my fifth year anniversary with my company, and in that time period, I have assigned a relatively low five-figure amount of work to outside counsel. And of that amount, only a small portion went to a former colleague in my network. The rest went to counsel from a list of approved firms for particular regions of the country. My intent is not to depress you, senior associates who have just realized in 2013 that you really don’t have a book to speak of, it is to get you to read between the lines.

In other words, find the differences from whence I speak, and fill in the holes. Those spaces in between are where opportunities exist for you to start to gain your own clients….

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Now that bonuses, year-end collections, and holiday parties are behind us, it is helpful to remind ourselves (early on in the new year) that it is (paying) clients that make everything possible for Biglaw firms. A few months ago, I was the fortunate recipient of some illuminating correspondence from a Biglaw refugee turned in-house counsel, offering a “customer’s” take on what is both right and wrong with the “current law firm service delivery model.” Because I truly believe in the importance of this column offering an anonymous outlet for informed discussion of Biglaw-related topics (see my posts detailing my conversations with Old School Partner and Jeffrey Lowe), I offered to make my correspondent the resident In-House Insider.

Agreement was not long in coming, together with yet more astute observations about Biglaw. For our initial “discussion,” I have (similarly to how I handled the Lowe interview) added questions and some brief commentary to our Insider’s points, and share this written interview with you. The only changes I made to the Insider’s words were related to their identity, and the Insider was given the opportunity to revise their responses once I added the questions and commentary. I hope we can continue to benefit from this In-House Insider’s perspective in the future. For now, I definitely appreciate when I get contacted by Biglaw-related personalities looking to discuss the issues raised in my column, and share their thoughts with this audience. Without further ado….

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A correspondent recently posed this question: I’m a litigation partner at a big firm. If I go solo, will my corporate clients continue to use me for their smaller matters?

I’ll use this column to do two things. First, I’ll offer the customary answer to all legal questions: It depends.

Second, I’ll ask my in-house readers at large corporations to let me know (either by posting in the comments or sending an e-mail to the link in the shirttail below) whether their corporations use sole practitioners.

Will big corporate clients follow an individual lawyer who jumps ship and goes solo?

It depends . . .

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What was the most anxiety-ridden ten minutes I’ve experienced under an editor’s gaze?

I had finished the manuscript of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law. My then-15-year-old son, Jeremy (who, like any teenager, would as soon spit in his father’s eye as praise him), said: “So, Dad, you wrote a book, huh?”

“Yes, Jere.”

Long pause. “Let me see the first chapter.”

I knew exactly what the kid was thinking: “I guess, if my Dad wrote a book, I should take a look. But this is going to be unbearable. So I’ll read a few pages and be done with it.”

Jeremy sat in the family room reading chapter one. I paced anxiously in the kitchen. My wife didn’t understand my anxiety: “Why are you so nervous? It’s only Jeremy.”

“Don’t you see? Jeremy’s my first truly neutral reader. He’s not a lawyer. He’s not inclined to read the thing. He won’t cut me any breaks. If Jeremy likes it, there’s a chance there’s actually an audience for this thing.”

After a few more anxiety-ridden minutes, Jeremy walked into the kitchen. After a seemingly endless pause: “Let me see chapter two….”

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Landing a corporate client is usually a happy time for any law firm, big or small. Now, the representation may not be a day in the park — after all, there are many, many ways for general counsel to drive outside counsel absolutely nuts. But even so, this kind of a client is another notch in your firm’s belt, no matter how difficult the relationship. Especially given today’s economy, this is a client that your firm will want to keep for as long as possible.

But regardless of everyone’s efforts, your firm just couldn’t seem to get it right. Your firm’s lawyers tried to placate the legal department’s every whim, to apparently no avail. Perhaps the proposed budget was a little too high. Perhaps an attorney from your firm was just a bit too snippy with in-house counsel. Whatever the case may have been, your firm got fired.

Why does this keep happening, and how can you make it stop?

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As lawyers, we often look past obvious signals when we’re about to get a new client. The client comes in, decides to hire “me” (yes, me!), and pays. What could be bad?

That the client showed up an hour late with no excuse or apology, or spent the hour with you talking about how his friend’s case worked out, or the opinion of his cousin who is a lawyer in another state is of no matter. We have a new client, a new check, and that’s all that we need.

I believe in the philosophy that sometimes the best client is the one you turn down. I’ll end a meeting after 10 minutes because the client’s expectations are only met through unethical behavior or by going to see the wizard. Or after meeting with the client, I’ll decline representation because even though the client can pay, I believe I’m not a good fit in terms of the client’s needs as far as time outside of the representation. Of course, then there’s the high fee you quote a client you just don’t want to represent who says (oops) “OK.”

Then there’s the client where everything seems great, until the day after you are retained….

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