Client service

Until last month, my entire legal career had been spent at large law firms. With a pretty specialized practice focusing on intellectual property, mainly patent litigation. And until last month, I never really needed to hire a lawyer, with one exception. Thankfully, it was for a good reason, to help me close on my house.

Which my lawyer handled with aplomb, so I am happy to recommend him if someone needs a good generalist solo based out of New York City. Even though my general tendency is to try and learn everything I can about something, when it came to buying a house, I really wanted nothing more than to have someone else deal with all the legal stuff. The fact that I was up for partner, and working pretty hard at my Biglaw firm that year, contributed to making me a “just get it done” type of client. Because I trusted my lawyer, and he demonstrated competence and responsiveness, I never needed to get out of that mode. We closed, I paid, and life went on.

I paid happily, and very quickly, because I had engaged someone to provide a service, and saw the results in a timely manner. Even though it was not a complicated transaction by any means, and I probably could have handled it myself, I valued my lawyer’s contribution and thus was happy to pay. I appreciated the small touches — like being handed a binder with copies of all the signed closing documents right after the closing. At the same time, I never really got engaged in the process enough to care to learn about it.

Comparing the experience I had then to my typical patent matter, the difference is stark….

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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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Ed. note: This is a new column from a person who didn’t just go from Biglaw to a smaller office, he went from big bad New York City to someplace where they care about the Big Ten network. It’s a different client roster and a different life.

As promised, the topic of this column is the difference in client service when you move to a smaller regional firm. First things first: I see from the comments on my last article that many of you are curious about the clients I represent here in Real America. Apparently it is very hard for some of you to believe that the types of clients that you have on the coasts also exist here in the Midwest. Believe it or not, we have banks! We have real estate investment trusts! We have life-science companies! We have parts manufacturers for any number of industries! We have mortgage servicers! We have large retailers with labor and HR issues!

And because these things exist, they need help from attorneys like us….

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Associates waste lots of time because senior lawyers are absolutely terrible managers. It’s not totally their fault. They think that a prestigious law degree means they’re an expert at everything. So armed with an irrelevant skill set, a complete lack of management training, and a hefty chunk of hubris, lawyers roll into personnel management sure that they know something by gut that business leaders endure hours and hours of MBA classes, Dale Carnegie seminars, and Six Sigma trainings to figure out.

Anyway, this leads to massive amounts of wasted time. The hours usually get (at least partially) billed and clients are savvy enough to know they deserve a write-off — but just how would they react if they knew exactly how their $500/hour was being spent?

Here are just a few tales of the wasted time billed to clients. Maybe you have some that top these?

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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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Last week, I wrote about face time considerations for associates. In Biglaw, face time is important for partners as well, albeit in a different way, with a significant exception for “pure” service partners.

Service partners are like associates when it comes to face time, with one major difference. In contrast to the often large constituency that associates need to please, your typical service partner needs to focus more exclusively on the specific rainmakers who provide them their work. That is why you will frequently find a service partner who is dependent on a particular rainmaker trailing that rainmaker around the office like a faithful Lab trailing a treat-bearing little kid. Or never leaving until the rainmaker leaves for the day. Vacations? Either timed to the rainmaker’s vacation, or planned with the idea that one would be perfectly accessible should the rainmaker call. Most of the time, this behavior by service partners happens naturally. When you have limited sources of work, it is folly not to stay close by those sources on a constant basis.

As important as face time is for senior and mid-level partners, it is even more important for junior partners….

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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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Here’s another story from real life (unless I’m making it up). The draft mediation statement starts with: “We sued them in Texas, and they sued us in Florida. Judges in both courts have now considered the issues.”

I write back, in my usual sensitive, caring way: “Any brief in the world could start with, ‘Somebody sued somebody’; that’s kind of the starting point for lawsuits. Because your opening sentence is entirely generic, it’s entirely unpersuasive. Please consider starting instead with: ‘BigCo hired three professional assassins to storm our world headquarters. During the assault, the assassins killed six of our employees, wounded four, and stole our trade secrets along the way.’ Having thus shown the mediator that we should win, we could then go on to note that we sued them in Texas, and they sued us in Florida, and judges in both courts have now considered the issues.”

Outside counsel writes back: “Perhaps you’d be right in some other case, but not in this one. We mediated this same case 18 months ago in front of the same mediator, so he already knows what our case is about. He doesn’t need any more of an introduction than my draft provides.”

What are the mistakes here? First, I’m the client. If I propose doing something idiotic, then stop me by any means necessary. But, in close calls, let me win; that’s called client service (and it’s what I did during the 25 years I spent in private practice). Second, this isn’t a close call. When I’m right and you’re wrong, let me win; that’s called intelligence. Third, and why I’ve set fingers to keyboard — you’ve made a mistake that I see repeatedly among lawyers: You think that people remember you . . . .

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Let’s assume for a moment that arithmetic is true.

This means that the average lawyer is average.

And average is actually pretty bad. (As one of my co-clerks said during the first week of a clerkship, reading a Ninth Circuit brief several decades ago: “This is great!”

“What? Is the brief good?”

“No! The brief is terrible. We are not gonna starve!”)

The average lawsuit thus pits Tweedledee against Tweedledum, and, sadly, they can’t both lose. After the verdict comes down, Tweedlewhoever boasts on his website of another great victory and yet more proof of his talent and expertise.

Twenty years later, what does that look like?

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