Clients

Keith Lee

An easy and lazy habit that you can have as a lawyer is only seeing things from the perspective of a lawyer. Lawyers are trained to deconstruct problems and look for weakness, to approach situations with a critical perspective. But that does not mean that it is the only perspective that you need to have. One of the most voiced complaints from clients is that their lawyer doesn’t understand their view or their perspective on a case or matter.

This is likely due to a breakdown of communication between the lawyer and the client, and more than likely it is the lawyer’s fault. As a lawyer, it is very easy to fall into entrenched patterns and lines of thought — so easy that it is often difficult to step back from your role as a lawyer, and look at a case or a problem as a layperson or client. Harvard professor Theodore Levitt most aptly summed up this problem with his famous observation: “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!”

A lawyer is often apt to think of the law as the drill — how to use it, apply it, and make it work in any particular situation. But a client does not really care about the law, they care about the solution to their problem — the quarter-inch hole…

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Keith Lee

I was sitting in my office yesterday afternoon when my phone dinged. It was one of my law partners. He had sent me a picture of our other partner standing in front of an auditorium with about seventy-five people in it. They had gone to one of the local law schools here to speak about dealing with clients. Like many other law schools, this law school is focusing on providing their students some manner of real-world experiential education in the elusive hopes of making students “practice-ready.” An impossible task, but at least students are exposed to practicing lawyers, even if just for a day. I mean, it’s better than a seminar on Harry Potter and the Law.

After speaking for a bit, they took questions from the students. Eventually, someone asked what to do about a difficult client. The response?

“Double the retainer.”

After the crowd chuckled, he added: “In all seriousness, double the retainer.”

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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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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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Ed. note: The Aspiring Lateral, a new series from Levenfeld Pearlstein, will analyze a variety of issues surrounding lateral moves, drawing on the firm’s experience in the lateral market as well as the individual experiences of LP attorneys. Today’s post is written by Rob Romanoff, the Managing Partner of Levenfeld Pearlstein.

When it comes to the ultimate departure, you can’t take it with you. When it comes to professional departures, however, it’s a different matter entirely. Whether or not you can take it with you — that is, whether your clients will follow you to a new firm — is a very open question indeed, and a critical one in any lateral candidate’s recruitment.

But how much portable business is enough to catch the eye of suitor firms? How can lateral candidates even determine the amount of their portable business? And how do they actually go about moving it? Let’s consider these questions in turn…

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Nothing you can say or do can cause me to retain you.

That’s terribly disheartening for folks who believe that business development should work, but it’s awfully close to being true.

Why is there nothing you can say that will cause me to hire you?

Because long experience (and the rules of arithmetic) have taught me that the average lawyer is average. So about 68 percent of all lawyers are within one standard deviation from the mean, and about 95 percent are within two standard deviations. And that’s roughly the mark that I’m aiming for when I hire outside counsel: Good lawyers. Really good lawyers. Maybe two standard deviations from the mean.

This means that if I picked my outside counsel randomly, I’d be disappointed 19 times out of 20. I don’t like those odds, so I don’t pick outside counsel randomly.

And if I picked my outside counsel based on which outside lawyers told me that they personally think they’re great, I’d still be disappointed 19 times out of 20. I still don’t like those odds.

I don’t know if other inside counsel view things the same way I do. But, if they do, it makes business development awfully tricky. If there’s nothing you can say or do to cause me to hire you, what forms of business development might work?

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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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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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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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