Thursday, June 16, 2005

 

Big Firm, Small Firm - Part Two: Client Contact

This post on Blawgwisdom reminds me that I had intended this post to be first in a series comparing big firm life to small firm life. Time for a new installment.

When you are interviewing for your first law firm job, one of the issues you're expected to discuss (in order to demonstrate your thoughtful approach to the interviewing process) is client contact.

As in:

How much client contact will I have as an associate in your firm?

My clinical experience gave me the opportunity for a lot of client contact.

While I enjoy researching and writing, I recognize that client contact is one of the most important aspects of legal practice.


For low-level associates at big firms, client contact is pretty much a myth. Client contact is almost exclusively handled by partners and a few senior associates, who will take it as a personal offense if you attempt to engage in any activity that might remotely be interpreted as client contact (such as calling up a client to ask a question or clarify a point of information for a brief you are writing). Before contacting a client about anything, you must first navigate the precarious tightrope of the big firm hierarchy - you call the mid-level associate, who calls the senior associate, who calls the partner, who in some cases then has to call the billing partner. All to find out if the Senior VP of Sales for the corporate client first contacted the plaintiff in November or December of 1991.

Of course, don't even suggest calling the client until you've waded through thousands of documents to see if you can find the information there, because you never ever take up five minutes of the client's time asking a simple question if you can find the same information on your own in about five hours.

At a small firm, it's a different world. Unlike large firms, where cases are generally heavily staffed with layers of lawyers, a small firm will usually staff all but the largest cases with only one partner and one associate. This is a big adjustment for an associate transitioning from a large firm to a small firm. Suddenly, client contact is the name of the game. As long as the partners feel you are not a complete buffoon (and they would not hire you if they thought so) you will be in contact with firm clients practically before you've finished filling out your W-2 form.

Sounds wonderful, you say! After all, isn't that what we want? Weren't you just talking about the importance of client contact? Isn't signficant client contact one sign of professional advancement? Sure, that may all be true, but you will need even more skill to navigate the minefield of client relations than you did to navigate the hierarchy of a large firm. In other words, client contact is a double-edged sword.

Here are a few DOs and DON'Ts I've learned about client relations in my short career:

1. DO think of your clients as people, rather than nameless, faceless entities.

In a small firm, clients are usually individuals rather than big corporations. As an associate in a big firm, you can forget that there are individual clients behind those corporate names, because you rarely see or speak to them. In a small firm, you must jettison this attitude. Clients have feelings and can often be very emotionally invested in their cases. Soothing those feelings and reassuring them about their anxieties, while still being realistic, is part of your job. Develop a personal rapport with your client. Remember their kid's names (or their pet's names) and ask about them. Pay attention to the personal clues they give you and draw on them later. For example, a client just told me he was coming up on a big promotion in a couple of months. I scheduled a reminder to ask him about it and sent an email to the partner suggesting we send the client a gift when it goes through.
2. DO have a split personality.

On the one hand, you must make the client feel that you are 100% on his or her side. On the other hand, you must try to maintain 100% objectivity about the merits and viability of your clients' case.
3. On a similar note, DON'T create false expectations of success.

My clients sometimes want reassurance that they have a good chance of winning a motion or the case itself. I prefer to be more pessimistic than optimistic and to emphasize that litigation can be kind of a crap-shoot. Many uncontrollable factors can influence the outcome. As in life, hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
4. DO COMMUNICATE.

I am starting to believe that good communication is as important as achieving a great result. Maybe I'll change this view, but right now, my clients seem happier when they know what is going on, even if it is bad news. Remember to take advantage of the fact that communication is a two-way street (pardon the cliche). It may be obvious, but some lawyers seem to forget that the client is the best resource for developing the case. At a big firm, low-level associates will spin their wheels for hours (wasting time and the client's money) trying to develop the facts of a case. Develop a relationship with the client where you are comfortable picking up the phone and getting information directly from the horse's mouth. I say this with the caveat that, of course, you should never call the client to ask them a question you should already know the answer to.
5. DO think of them as your clients, not just the firm's clients.

Be as invested in your clients as you would if they were paying you directly for your services.
6. DO treat each client as if he/she is special, with kindness, patience and respect.

I have actually heard of lawyers telling their clients "you are not my only client. This is not my only case." Why? Don't we want to make our clients feel they are more important, not less? When speaking with a client, don't let impatience or frustration seep into your voice because you are feeling stressed and pressured. Do not be rude or brusque. You may need to explain things several times before they understand. Don't talk to them as if they are sophisticated legal thinkers, but don't condescend to them either.
7. DO be conscious of everything you write about your client.

While we have all experienced frustrating moments with clients, do not document your frustration, even in a short email to another lawyer in the firm. Whenever I am faced with this temptation, I remind myself that most of what I write on the client's behalf belongs to the client and may - in some context - be disclosed to the client. The problems that would arise in that situation would far outweigh the temporary satisfaction I would get from venting in the moment. This is sort of an unrelated point, but also be careful about criticizing a judge in a written communication to your client. What if the client relationship ends up in a fee dispute or malpractice litigation? God forbid the case ends up before the same judge, or someone who is friends with that judge. Opposing counsel would love nothing more than to waive around that memo you wrote to the client saying "Judge Smith, like most judges, is an idiot and doesn't understand the merits of your claims."
8. At some point, DO think of the client as the firm's client and not yours.

Yes, I know this rule appears to contradict Rule No. 5, but if a client starts to make your life really miserable, I think this rule supercedes. If you have an extremely difficult or even abusive client, do not get drawn into a dysfunctional relationship. As an associate, you have no power to choose or reject clients or cases. That is the Partner's call and, therefore, it is the partner's responsibility to be a buffer between you and a really difficult client. If your partner refuses to do this, you have decide if you can continue to function in that environment.
9. DON'T complain to your client.

You are there to deal with your client's problems, not the other way around. Never complain about your job or badmouth a partner, no matter how comfortable you feel talking to the client.
10. DO remember that the client will be reviewing your bills.

Be descriptive with your entries and review your descriptions using your client's eyes. How would you feel about the entry if you were the client? Of course, as an associate, you should never never write down your own time. Leave that to the partner. But if you think a client might be unhappy with a billing entry or with the amount of time spent on a project, draw the partner's attention to the entry as a potential candidate for discounting.
Stay tuned for another installment of Big Firm, Small Firm and feel free to suggest topics of interest for this series.

Thanks also to Ambivalent Ambroglio for linking to part one of the series.
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