Mayer Brown –
The practice of law has changed over the past half-century. Very few successful attorneys will dispute that. The days of invoices sent to clients with a number and “for services rendered” not only are gone, lawyers who began practice since those days ended often think those stories are jokes (they aren’t).
At the same time, many lawyers have failed to adapt their practices to the new realities and continue to view themselves as the ultimate deus ex machina. They live above the business fray and continue to specialize in what may most charitably be called the “here’s the law, have a nice life” memorandum. Clearly this still works with some clients, but evidence in the form of my clients’ complaints suggest that business model too is on its way out.
So how do you best serve your clients and remain true to your own values and ethics? The following is my own formula.
1. Know your client’s business.
It is shocking how many lawyers begin focusing on the legal issues without taking the time to thoroughly understand a client’s industry and business realities. It is a bad way to start a relationship because it looks and feels transactional.
2. Focus on the business, rather than legal advice in a vacuum.
That may be important to you from an academic standpoint, but your client’s objective is real-world guidance. The law provides you the means to get there.
Be practical and understand that the right answer is the one that gets the client from point A to point B, that explains the legal argument in support of your advice and leads the client to the decision that works best for the company.
On many occasions a client will ask for a broader spectrum of advice. “I don’t give business advice” is the wrong answer. The client is in business, and has hired you for your wisdom. If you understand the business, understand the company’s dynamic and have been listening, chances are you’ll have something valuable to offer. And what you provide may well be even more valuable than your legal opinion.
When you’re a strategic partner to your client you have one of the most important building blocks in the development of a long term relationship.
3. Be honest.
Being a lawyer sometimes involves delivering bad news. Your client understands that is a possibility and is not interested in having you sugar coat things. At the same time, don’t present a problem without an accompanying solution. Your client most likely knew the problem before you did. They want you to help solve it. Not only is bad news without a solution useless, it is a waste of the client’s money and downright demoralizing.
4. Stand behind your advice.
That does not mean that you have to guarantee that it will turn out to be right. As much as both you and your client would be thrilled if you were right all of the time, they know better and so do you. What standing behind your advice means is being there if things don’t go as hoped or as planned, and help the client fix the problem.
5. Your clients are people-treat them that way.
Yes, you represent the company. But the people with whom you interact have their own hopes, needs and fears. The more understanding you are about these, the better and more meaningful the relationship.
This extends a bit farther. An attentive lawyer learns the dynamic of the various actors within the company and tailors his or her approach to the issues with a view toward the inevitable inter-corporate clashes. Don’t take sides, and never ever operate in opposition to your general counsel’s interests, or if your principal client is the CEO, that individual’s interests. I practiced in-house for more than six years and fewer things destroyed the relationship of trust more than outside counsel currying favor with one of the people in the corporate hierarchy.
6. Don’t pitch at inappropriate times.
There are occasions where you will be asked to pitch, or submit and present a response to an RFP. It is appropriate to lead off with a brief discussion of the firm’s ethos and talents. But keep it brief. After the engagement, not only is there nothing wrong with introducing your colleagues; it is an important aspect of being a good partner. Clients understand that. But listen to your client’s needs (you’ll hear plenty if you do) and adapt your approach and suggestions to the client’s needs. Be client facing and client focused, and your input will be appreciated more often than not. Your client may need a good labor lawyer, and it may not have occurred to him or her that you have a partner who fits that bill.
7. Let your own personality show.
All of us are interesting in our own ways. If you have a sense of humor, let it through at the appropriate times. Most important, be yourself and be someone with whom your client looks forward to speaking, rather than dreads. People prefer to work with those they like. That’s just common sense. You won’t click with everybody, but in the long run you are much better being you.
8. Don’t be afraid to say no to engagements or on those rare occasions, fire a client.
We all have been faced with proposed engagements we knew in our gut that for whatever reason, were inappropriate. Don’t hesitate to refer a prospective client to a colleague or somebody else you know can do the job more effectively. Your honesty will be very much appreciated, and other opportunities will follow that are good fits for your skill set.
Then there are clients from whom you should run, as fast as possible. I had one who insisted that I was obstructing his business by declining to bless a course of action he and I both knew was illegal. Worse yet, he wanted the advice on paper, “just in case.”
Before I terminated the engagement, I explained that I had no desire to obstruct his ability to do business, and that any decisions were his to make. What you are saying, I went on, is that you are frustrated because I won’t give you license in the form of legal advice to do what you and I both know could land you in jail, and who knows what to me. I cannot describe the sense of relief I experienced watching that individual walk out the door.
This probably belongs in the be honest section above, but there are times you will be compelled to reframe a client’s reality. There was an occasion in which I was trying on a conference call to persuade a client that the “minor league” federal agency known as the Food and Drug Administration (better known as FDA) could indeed shut down his business. I wasn’t sufficiently persuasive, but I finally happened on a successful tactic. I found a photo featuring individuals wearing blue windbreakers with the yellow letters FDA emblazoned on the back as well as pistols, in the midst of padlocking a facility. I e-mailed it to him, and in short order we moved to a more productive discussion.
9. Price your services appropriately.
My own experience is that most clients continue to prefer the billable hour. That is fine, but many clients are looking for alternative fee structures. Don’t be afraid to work together with your client to devise a billing formula that works for both of you. Many clients early in their life cycle are limited in their ability to absorb unlimited by the hour invoices.
By coming up with an innovative phased billing formula, you become a long-term partner for your client. Some clients won’t make it despite your and their best efforts to manage their cash flow. The ones that do, in my experience, won’t forget what you did. And the ones that didn’t could well return as part of a different company. They won’t forget what you tried to do.
A project isn’t over when it ends. Inevitably, there are loose ends that your client may forget after moving to the next issue. Your job is to remember those loose ends and efficiently tie them together.
There are innumerable ideas on the best ways to be of service to clients. These are the ones that have worked for me and, I’d like to think, my clients. I would enjoy hearing what has worked for you and, from clients, your thoughts on how outside counsel can best serve your needs.
Mark Mansour is a Litigation & Dispute Resolution partner in Mayer Brown’s Washington DC office. He focuses his practice on federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulatory matters.