Clients

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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He came to the office wanting only one thing: to clear his name by fighting the accusations. They were accusations that were currently civil (and very public) in nature, but could become criminal and administrative. He got my name, and he brought his file and his checkbook. He had his assignment for me, and just wanted a pen.

There was nothing I needed to do. No selling of my qualifications, no answering questions about what I think about other lawyers, no internet marketer to thank. He checked me out, was told the possible amount of fees, and made his decision before walking in the door.

I read his documents, asked a few questions, noted a few things I saw, and then told him he was going to get killed. I explained not only the legal aspects of his case, but the consequences of fighting and losing. I also explained his other options based on things he wanted to do, and why I thought there was another way to go that would put him in a better position to avoid other issues that would surely arise.

He immediately got up and walked out wanted to continue talking.

You may be thinking this is pretty obvious. This is what lawyers do, they give advice to potential clients on the risks and possibilities and let the client make the decision.

But we know that’s not true….

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I know you were expecting a round-up of last week’s Legal Marketing Association rainbow and unicorn festival conference where this year’s theme was… well, the same as last year and the year before: “Why won’t lawyers listen to our buzz words?” Instead of a round-up of the group hug, which will only make you dumber, here’s all you need to know based on the #LMA13 Twitter feed:

Formalizing client process via increased measurement and increased services provided is making difference in accounting client satisfaction.

That comment was made after Popehat read the Twitter feed and instead of voluntarily running into the path of a fire truck, asked this question:

How will your firm embrace synergizing social leverage rebranding communication channels to market integration strategies of scale?

Of course if you didn’t go, you also missed the 4,759 announcements of:

We have another winner for our iPad giveaway! Stop by booth 300.

And that was it, buzz words and iPads. Get ready for an onslaught of marketeer emails and cold calls with game-changing new normal worthless ideas that will be criticized at next year’s conference, after you’ve paid for the marketeer to implement them in your practice.

So while all the marketeers are busy convincing you with buzz words that they have ways to get you more clients, clients, clients, I, of course, want to talk about getting rid of clients.

Can I never just jump on board and play along?

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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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