Clients

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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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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You want to know what the future of law entails for you? Probably not much. You do the same crap everyone else does. You’re some run-of-the-mill commercial litigator, or you write the same wills as every other estate planning lawyer, or you’re an “aggressive” and “caring” and “passionate” criminal-defense lawyer that will “fight for your rights.”

It’s all garbage. You don’t matter. You compete on price and spend your day wondering what works better — pay-per-click, or your Facebook Fan Page. You’ll pay the bills and get a nice case every so often, but you’re just another lawyer wondering why the world hasn’t lined up to hire you.

The future of law is specialization. I’m not just talking about “niche” practices, I’m talking about specialization within your practice. I’m talking about being a resource in your practice area, or knowing more about a specific issue than the others. And yes, I have examples, calm down, I’ll lay this out for you in simple, easy terms that you can understand. Maybe you can even put some of this to work in the middle of contemplating your miserable life as a lawyer….

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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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Young lawyers just starting out with their own practice usually tell me the type of work they’re doing is “whatever comes in the door.” Of course the pedigree Biglaw types criticize that type of practice, but probably don’t know that when the now dead founders of their firm started, they probably had a similar type of practice. They did real estate work, wrote a will, and maybe even (God forbid) found themselves defending a client in criminal court. At some point, they developed a practice and became known for a certain type of lawyering.

What I see today is lawyers doing any kind of work in order to eat, and lawyers who are lucky enough to have a niche, but are still taking cases in which they have no idea what they are doing. It’s like the lawyer whose niche is probate, but has never stepped foot in a probate litigation case, or the lawyer who handles misdemeanor cases taking on a complex white collar case because “it’s a good fee.”

Those of us who suffer through lawyer e-mail listservs see these lawyers all the time. “Has anyone filed a motion for ____________ who can send me a copy?” That same lawyer asks for multiple documents in a period of several weeks and then asks about procedure and whether anyone knows opposing counsel. They’ve never handled a case like this, and worse, have no idea what they are doing. They’ll never realize how pathetic they look to everyone else on the list, many of whom will have an opportunity to refer a case, and will remember not to send it to them.

There’s nothing wrong with learning, unless you are learning to the detriment of the client. There’s no doubt we’ve unknowingly been on an airplane with a pilot who is in the captain’s chair for the first time, but there’s also someone sitting to the right of him.

This post isn’t simply about asking for help, it’s also about determining whether the case is something you should take. When you’re starting out, or struggling, and someone comes in with more money than you received in the last three months, you’re all too eager to pretend you know how to handle the client’s case. You’ll just take the retainer and start typing away on the listserv, or fake it and hope you can figure it out. You also hope the client will never know that they’ve hired a lawyer that has no idea what to do.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t take these cases; I’m saying you should protect your client, and yourself, in that order….

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Last week, I focused on the stupidity of competing on price as opposed to competing on quality and service. And I understand, young lawyers believe all they have is the ability to compete on price. More experienced lawyers believe they have to compete on price because today’s clients don’t care about anything but price.

You can convince yourself of anything. As for price, convince yourself of this — continue to compete on price and you’ll spend your career becoming the cheapest lawyer in town.

Now let’s talk about using the competition as a resource….

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A plumber once told me, “There’s price, quality, and service — I can only give two. Pick which ones you want.”

In the service business there are those that focus on beating the competition the easy way — price. Quality and service are often assumed by unknowing clients who believe that a $500 lawyer is going to offer the quality and service of the $5,000 lawyer (sometimes that’s true). You find out your “competition” quoted a flat fee of $10,000 for the representation, so you’ll do it for $7,500.00. You’ve determined the client is only hiring on price, and you’re good at price. You would never think to tell the client that your fee is $15,000.00. You don’t feel confident in your quality or service, nor that the client cares. You’re just trying to compete at the lowest common denominator.

Focusing on the competition is a waste of time. I see it over and over again. A group of lawyers start a niche and there is a standard fee no matter who you hire. Then some young broke stud jumps in and charges $20 less. A few years later, everyone is charging 60 percent less. No one is making money, except those that aren’t focused on the competition….

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Ed. note: This is the fourth installment in a new series of posts from the ATL Career Center’s team of expert contributors. Today, we have some great advice for newly minted attorneys from Joshua Stein, the principal of Joshua Stein PLLC, a prominent commercial real estate law practice in Manhattan.

It’s your first year as a new lawyer. What do you need to know? How can you not screw it up? Here are some suggestions, based on more than 30 years of experience — as an associate at two firms, then a brief time as an associate at a third firm, followed by 20+ years as a partner at that third firm. These suggestions reflect my own experiences, lessons learned along the way, and what I’ve seen and heard from others. Nothing here applies specifically or uniquely to any firm where I worked.

It’s a Business. As much as we might all want law firms to be kind and gentle, remember that client demands are not kind and gentle. Also remember that a firm’s profitability — the ultimate main event — depends on buying a lot of legal expertise wholesale, converting it into as many hours of billable legal work as possible, then selling those hours at retail. That isn’t going to go away. Get used to it. That’s the business you’re in. If you don’t want to be in it, go find some other business to be in.

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