‘From the Client’s Chair’ is a series of blog posts offering a client’s perspective on working with law firms. The observations are based on my 20+ years as a General Counsel, spent hiring and working with firms worldwide.
Let’s face it: Most big law firms are bursting with competent lawyers. It takes smarts to get a BigLaw job offer and an off-the-charts work ethic to avoid having to find another. In this world, competence is table stakes.
Once upon a time, that was enough to keep your clients happy and loyal. Today, all that has changed: Law-firm hopping makes speed dating look like commitment.
So, what’s a lawyer to do?
First: Realize that client loyalty isn’t dead. However, today more than ever, it depends on building deep and ‘other-directed’ client relationships that extend beyond just the deals you were hired to handle.
The key to client loyalty is understanding the world from your client’s perspective and keeping her company’s business goals ‘front and center’ every time you give legal advice –- and in-between those times.
Second: Realize that client loyalty does not depend on socializing. You don’t need to spend your summer wooing clients in the firm’s box seats. Instead, you need to be doing a number of little things while you’re on-duty.
In truth, these things are ‘little’ only in the sense that they don’t take an outsized IQ or every waking moment to accomplish. In terms of impact, they are huge.
Thinking back on the hundreds of partners and associates I worked with as a General Counsel, three stand head-and-shoulders above the rest. The loyalty that these three lawyers instilled in me was of the ‘follow-you-to-the-ends-of-the-earth’ variety. For convenience, let me call them the ‘Incredibles.’
[It’s worth noting that the Incredibles worked at different law firms. That is, their ‘secret sauce’ was not an institutionalized thing.]
So, what sets the Incredibles apart? Here are some of the ‘little big things’ they do to build client loyalty:
They love to live vicariously
An Incredible makes a point of looking at the world through my eyes. When giving advice, he imagines that he’s in my position at my company.
In order to ‘channel’ me accurately, he does his homework: He learns — and keeps learning — as much as he can about my company, its internal players and its industry.
He also fully appreciates that my GC role is as much about being a business executive as it is about being a lawyer. This appreciation informs how he thinks about my problem and shapes his advice.
All well and good, you say, but how does an Incredible learn this stuff?
To begin, he reads everything about my company that he can get his hands on. This includes the company’s website; its SEC filings and quarterly earnings transcripts; general business and financial news (The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times ‘Business’ section are de rigueur); industry trade publications (Footwear News, anyone?); and whatever else turns up online and seems relevant.
Realizing that knowledge grows stale, he keeps his current by setting up Google alerts on my company and, just generally, staying on the prowl for late-breaking news.
[To understand how ‘into’ my world an Incredible gets: If I were to ask him for his SWOT analysis of my company –- that is, to describe my company’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as its opportunities and threats (SWOT, get it?) — he could answer. Piece of cake.]
Armed with this knowledge, an Incredible will ask me ‘insider’ questions to deepen his understanding of my company –- and of my situation in it. (Questions re the latter will center on the dynamics among internal company players: whether our CEO has expressed an opinion on the issue, how I think our Board will react, etc.)
Now here’s the litmus test for me: When it comes time to make a judgment call, an Incredible is always happy to answer my question, ‘What would you do, if you were in my shoes?’ None of this ‘on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other-hand’ stuff that so many lawyers traffic in.
An Incredible knows that perfect solutions are few and far between. He also knows that a big part of his job involves helping me understand the risks of each imperfect path. However, when the time comes to choose which one to walk down, he’s willing to make a call.
They look out for you – beyond what you hired them for
An Incredible thinks about me when he doesn’t have to.
He congratulates me when my company’s had a big litigation win, a great financial year or other success. On the flip side, he expresses his solidarity when things haven’t gone our way.
He does this even when his own firm hasn’t been involved in the situation. It takes him two minutes (maybe less, depending how fast he types or dials). His ROI lasts a ridiculous amount longer.
Similarly, an Incredible looks out for me professionally. If he knows I like to network (I do and he will), he’ll offer to introduce me to his other GC clients. If he thinks my company might benefit from talking with another company at which he has contacts, he’ll ask me if we’d be interested in meeting.
On yet another front: An Incredible tips me off whenever a development in the law might have a big impact on my company. Rather than simply counting on me to have read his firm’s ‘legal developments’ e-bulletin, an Incredible will send me a personalized e-mail message (bulletin attached), briefly pointing out how my company may be affected.
The Incredible doesn’t bill me for this stuff. He trusts that karma will prevail. For a variation on this theme, let’s turn to #3….
They pay it forward
An Incredible gives stuff away for free. Rather than billing my company for every phone call lasting 1/10th of an hour, he uses good judgment in deciding when it’s appropriate to bill and when it’s more important to chalk a conversation up to building client goodwill.
Let me give you an example that falls on the extreme end of the generosity spectrum:
One of my Incredibles handled the lion’s share of my company’s outside corporate and SEC work. As a result, we interacted a lot.
Nonetheless — rather than confining our relationship to billable interactions — this Incredible arranged for more. Each quarter, he would invite my Legal Team to have lunch with his group of firm lawyers working on our account. We’d spend these lunches schmoozing about goings-on at my company and kicking around ideas related to the legal issues involved.
In the process, my Team got real-time training in how sophisticated private practice lawyers think through business situations and tease out the legal issues. The value to us was enormous. Yet, despite that value, the Incredible never billed us for these lunch sessions.
Incredible as in ‘Incredible Chump’? Hardly. Try ‘dumb like fox.’
By listening intently to our concerns du jour and having his lawyers share their general ideas for handling them, this Incredible was ensuring that — if a matter boiled over and needed outside legal help –- he would be the first person we called. In effect, he’d embedded his troops in mine.
They play supporting roles –- unless they’re asked to star
An Incredible sees his role as making me, the GC, look good. Unless I’ve crossed into unethical or illegal territory, an Incredible will be there to back me up and –- if I’ve hit an unfamiliar situation – will coach me behind the scenes.
Even when an Incredible is the Mick Jagger of his legal field, he doesn’t strut — or, for that matter, wear lycra -– unless I ask him to. (Boards enjoy a good Stones concert from time to time.) Rather, he’s happy to serve as my private sounding board and coach – without the need to wrest credit for himself.
Now, that’s what I call being 20 feel from stardom….
They act as if you’re their only client
An Incredible is available. He takes my calls. And, on those occasions when he can’t, he calls me back at warp speed. Even if he doesn’t have an answer for me yet, he calls to let me know that he ‘gets’ both what I need and when I need it.
An Incredible prefers talking on the phone to e-mailing, in situations where either mode would work. He knows that relationships build faster when two people hear the sound of each other.
Here’s another example of a ‘little big thing’: One of my Incredibles was, indeed, the Mick Jagger of his field. No matter. Each time I arrived at his posho firm, he would walk to the reception area himself and lead me back to his office. A ‘little’ gesture? Of course. But it sent the big message that my business mattered.
They talk in terms of ‘we’
When an Incredible talks about my company in front of me (or others who work there), he will often use the pronouns ‘we’ and ‘our.’ That is, he talks as if he works at the company along with the rest of us. (Where most lawyers would say ‘I think you should try this approach,’ an Incredible will say ‘I think we should….’)
Of course, an outside lawyer can’t always do this. Sometimes talking about your client in the first person is inappropriate or confusing. Other times, it can sound forced.
However, when the setting is right, an Incredible who talks like a company insider sends vibes of solidarity –- and, yes, loyalty — to the people who work there.
And, as we’ve all been told since preschool: Loyalty is a two-way street….