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Legal Jobs >> Legal Articles >> Career Counsel >> A client can make or break a law firm
  • Career Counsel

A client can make or break a law firm


by      

The senior partners decide who gets hired, who gets fired, who gets the juicy cases, who gets the big bonus. And that is why you work like a springer spaniel to impress them. But if you think they hold the keys to your career, you're missing the big picture. Truth is, it's the client who hires and fires the law firms, pays the bills, and talks up her brilliant young lawyer at the party she throws for her absurdly rich and powerful friends. In short, it is the client who can make or break your career, which means you'll want to manage your client contact with extreme care—no gaffes, no missteps, no awkward moments. To help you, we asked young associates about client situations that have tripped them up in the past. If you haven't come across these land mines yet, you will. And when you do, you'll know exactly how to sidestep them.

I'm about to make my first call to the client. How should I address him?
You only get one chance to make a first impression, as the old saw goes, so let your best manners be your guide. That means saying "please." That means saying "thank you." That means saying "Have a good day," "How do you do," and "Mister." But what if you've heard other lawyers at the firm call the client by his first name? Never you mind; stick with the manners. "When the time comes to place your first call, always err on the side of formality," says attorney Scott Davido, a division president of Minneapolis-based energy provider NRG Energy. Simply say, "Good morning, Mr. Smith, this is Jane Doe calling from Hobson, Hobson, Hobson & Schmegegie." "Nobody will be offended by this," says Davido. "After all, your relationship with the client is a business relationship." If the client invites you to use his first name, do so. After all, that's just good manners.

Is it acceptable to break the ice with a little chitchat?
Yes, but very little. How very little? "How are you today?" should suffice. Remember, time is precious, especially to someone who's paying you in six-minute increments; any dawdling can create the impression that you're letting the clock tick. After your quick howdydo, get right to business with something like "I have the answers to your questions regarding the merger." Fascinating discussions about weather and traffic will develop naturally as the relationship matures.

How about telling a joke?
Ever hear the one about the young lawyer who put his foot in his mouth by offending a client he didn't realize was a blonde Polish one-legged priest? "If you don't know the backgrounds of everyone around the table or on a conference call, a joke can end up being extremely inappropriate," says James Patton, general counsel of New England Tech, a private technical college in Warwick, Rhode Island, and a board member of the Association of Corporate Counsel, the national professional association for in-house counsel. It'll take you some time to get to know your client's sense of humor. To be safe, let your client make the first crack and don't push the humor envelope—if she tells a dumb-blonde joke, you can too, but leave out your favorite naked Democrat bit.

What should I say if a client asks a question to which I don't have the answer?
What should I say if a client asks a question to which I don't have the answer? Clients want advice. And they want it fast. But know this: More than anything, they want it to be right. "The worst thing a lawyer can do is wing it," says Michael Cahn, senior associate counsel of Providence, Rhode Island's Textron, parent to Cessna Aircraft and Bell Helicopter. "A client may act on the answer you give, which can seriously affect the business," he says. Every young lawyer wants to impress a client with her Nascar-quick mind, but instead of spitting out a half-cocked answer, try this: Simply repeat the question to the client to let her know you've heard it correctly. Then say: "I've taken some notes on this, and I have some ideas about how to handle it, but let me first speak with my partner so that he's aware of the situation and agrees. I'll get back to you before the end of the day." Then do just that. (Bonus extra-special save-your-hide note to new associates: Never offer a client meaningful advice without first checking with the partner or the senior associate.)

On a first solo call with a client, I got a little flustered and fumbled some words. The client interrupted with a sharp, "Have you ever done this before?" What could I have said to reassure her that I knew what I was doing?
The person you actually need to reassure in this situation is yourself. Remember this: Your senior partner wouldn't have assigned the call to you if you weren't ready. That's doubly true if the deadline is tight and the stakes high. But enough about your petty insecurities; let's turn to the client. More than anything, she needs to know she's in capable hands. Given that you've done most of the legwork and analysis on the case, you probably do know what you're talking about. Don't try to assure the client by walking her through your resume—that will only undercut your authority. Don't pretend that someone pranced into your office, spilled coffee on your desk, and distracted you—that'll make your workplace seem like a Seinfeld set. Instead, says James Holman, the hiring partner at Philadelphia's Duane Morris, "use the client's comment to take control of the situation. Take a deep breath and say, 'I apologize, I am a fairly junior associate, but I have examined the issues and discussed all this with the senior person on the file. I'm comfortable giving you the answer and the reasons for that answer.' " If need be, add that the senior lawyers on the case specifically asked you to make the call. Finally, offer to have the partner or senior associate call the client if she has any additional questions or concerns. That not only tells the client that her concerns are important to you, but gives you a chance to spin the story to the partner before the client calls him directly.

A client called me one morning but I was in a meeting. When I returned the call, he complained that I'm not accessible enough. How do I respond? And how do I set realistic expectations?
Want to know what clients complain about most? That their lawyer isn't responsive enough. Irrational as it may be, your client wants to feel as if he is your one and only client. So while you certainly don't need to—and shouldn't—share the details of your day with him, he should know how to reach you if an urgent question arises. "The one thing that matters is being able to get a response from you," says Cathleen McLaughlin, a partner at Allen & Overy. "They're not going to be grateful for the fantastic memo that came after three days of calls to you." Best practices: Apologize for any missed calls or crossed signals. Reassure your client that you're always checking voice mail and e-mail, that when out of the office you've got your BlackBerry and cell, and that your secretary can always find you in the event of an emergency or free tickets to a ball game.

It's midnight. I just got home and I'm ready to go to sleep. Suddenly, it strikes me that I forgot to return a client's phone call. What should I do?
You should leave a message on his work voice mail, apologize, and promise to call first thing in the morning. Keep it brief. Keep it professional. And then return that call exactly as you promised. Good night.

The client hasn't returned my call on a question I need her to answer. I can't proceed on the case until she does. What do I do?
"If you're not getting any response, figure out who can get the client's attention," says Tess Ferrera, a partner at Kilpatrick Stockton in Washington, D.C. Often a client will respond to the partner with whom she has a relationship. There's nothing shameful about telling your partner what you need, when you need it, and that you've repeatedly tried to get the client on the phone. Should you want to play this to your advantage, feel free to add the following kiss-ass line: "She always mentions that you two have a great relationship, and I know she'll return a call from you."

Is it ever okay to tell a client that the reason I don't have the answer to his question is that I'm busy working on another case? Um, no.

I've been spending night and day on a client's case and the client has no idea how hard I'm working for him. Can I tell him how much sweat I'm putting in?
Would you like to know how long it took Jungle Law to write this article? Would you like to hear about our late nights, junk-food dinners, and angry spouses? Didn't think so. Your client is no different. She has hired your firm and put her trust in its lawyers because she knows you'll work hard and arrive at the best solution for her. How the firm comes up with that answer isn't a concern. "Mentioning the last two all-nighters is nothing more than gratuitous," says NRC Energy's Davido. "You're rarely better served by pointing out your efforts." Simply put, your client wants to know what time it is, not how you built the watch.

My client offers suggestions on a case that, frankly, are quite bad. How do I handle this?
Never tell a client her ideas aren't good. "What you do, after listening to her ideas, is say very politely, 'I'll take that into consideration,' " says McLaughlin of Allen & Overy. Then cover alternative courses of action. Try: "That's one way to approach it. We also might want to consider these other strategies. My feeling is these are more effective because blah blah." Next, speak to your team members and build a consensus about the strategy. Ask the most senior person in the group to present the alternative that's appropriate for the client.

The client is pressuring me to structure a deal in a way that makes me uncomfortable. Do I do it anyway? Should I try to get out of it? How do I best cover my hindquarters?
A young associate, eager to make a good impression on both the client and the senior lawyers at the firm, might be tempted to give the client what he asks for. But that's not what you've been hired to do. "It's important for attorneys to tell their clients what the law is," says Ferrera of Kilpatrick Stockton. "Be very clear with the client. Tell him, 'If you want to take that position, here are the risks involved, and here are the reasons I can't tell you it's okay to structure your deal this way.' " Let your partner know what's going on, and don't be shy about explaining your discomfort. As for your hindquarters? Two tactics: 1) ask whether it's possible for a more senior lawyer to handle the matter, and 2) do some of the above in e-mail so you have an electronic trail.

What's the best way to deliver bad news to a client?
The important thing here is to demonstrate to your client that you are in control of the situation. There shouldn't even be time for an "Oh, Lord, what's going to become of me?" thought to swirl through his head. To that end, never lead with the negative, says the Association of Corporate Counsel's Patton. "What he wants to hear is, 'I have a solution to a situation I've become aware of.' " This will simultaneously lessen the impact and reassure the client you've got everything under control.

At a dinner celebrating a deal closing, the client orders round after round of drinks. I'm not a drinker, but I want to fit in and I certainly don't want to offend him. Any advice?
Let's parse the issues, shall we? First, we have peer pressure: You don't want to be seen as the wuss who can't party with the powerful. Assuming you're unable to put aside these adolescent feelings of being left out, your best bet is to fudge it. Approach the bar, order a seltzer and lime, tip big so the bartender remembers you, then every time you belly up, say "More of the same" or "Gimme another" or something else equally he-mannish. The second issue is about getting fall-down drunk at a work event. "Even if you're in a social situation outside the office, getting drunk with clients is never a good idea and has the potential to damage a relationship," says James Sprayregen, a bankruptcy partner at Chicago's Kirkland & Ellis. Yes, it's important to take part in these celebratory events. But do try to avoid situations where there's potential to make a bad impression. For the record, vomiting makes a bad impression. As does quoting from Taxi Driver. Suggesting a game of quarters won't burnish your image, either. Do we need to remind you to pace yourself? To alternate a glass of booze with a glass of water? Of course we don't.

I do a lot of work at the client's office. Sometimes, I join the client and a few in-house lawyers for an after- work drink. Who picks up the tab?
Who did the inviting? Typically, he who invites picks up the tab. Of course, "You got the last one; let me get it this time" is always appreciated (save those receipts). As the more junior person in the group, you're usually not responsible for paying the bill— especially if a partner is present.

Every time I speak with the client, he screws up my name. How can I correct him without offending him?
You could butcher his name the next time you say it, which, though deliciously satisfying, would be immature and rude. If he simply can't remember your name, try this: "There's another associate here named Mike who you might be thinking of, but I'm Matt." If it's a matter of mispronunciation, say: "I get that all the time, but the correct pronunciation is actually Con-do-lee-zza."

I'm escorting a client from the reception area to the partner's office. Two minutes in an elevator feels like forever. What should I talk about?
Why do wise men say that silence is golden? Because it beats the heck out of inane conversation and awkward stabs at common ground. "If you're racking your brain to think of something to say, you're better off saying nothing," says Davido. "An elevator ride is not the place to try and hit a home run." True enough, but it is an opportunity to charm the client, make him laugh, and put him at ease. An opportunity, in short, to make an impression. With even five minutes' notice, you can look up the most recently published newspaper article on the client's company. Simply saying, "Nice piece in the Gazette" demonstrates that you're informed and care about his company. He'll take it from there. One note of caution: Avoid discussing his case in the elevator. Important privacy issues aside, you don't want to begin a serious discussion until he's sitting down and focusing on the issues rather than on the elevator's maximum weight capacity.


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