GPSolo Magazine - April/May 2006

How to Think Like Your Client

Nothing will jump-start your success as a lawyer more than knowing your client. Beyond the basics of contracts and pleadings, beyond the com- plexities of financing vehicles and regulatory requirements, you must come to understand your client’s concerns, current business strategies, and industry. Only then will your legal advice truly advance the client’s business objectives—and let you become an integral member of the client’s team.

Get the Inside Scoop

You have expertise in an area of law. How do you gain expertise in your client’s world?

First, you must understand how your client operates from the inside. You should, of course, understand the formal organizational structure of your client, but you can’t stop there. No matter the client—whether an individual or a family, a closely held corporation, a start-up venture, or a publicly traded company—someone is making the decisions, and that someone is not always the person at the top of the organizational chart. You need to understand who’s in charge, who’s influential, how decisions are made, what factors are motivating the individuals you work with, and where the client’s risk tolerance begins and ends.

Most of the important “inside” information is not readily available on the client’s organizational charts or website. Inside knowledge of a client comes only with time and experience, but you will speed things along if you ask questions, listen well and intuitively, and pay close attention in your interactions with the client. Never underestimate the power of helpfulness and courtesy to create allies who will provide insight. And remember that this type of inside information is constantly in flux. You must always be attuned to the currents of change within the client.

To-do list:

• Know your client’s formal organizational structure.

• Keep abreast of organizational developments by regularly checking your client’s website.

• Cultivate relationships with key people through lunches and targeted entertaining such as invitations to charity events, industry conferences, and sporting and cultural events.

• Invite your client to participate in firm-sponsored events, including in-house CLE programs and conferences.

• In your daily interactions with the client, treat people at every level as individuals and not merely as functionaries.

• Visit your client from time to time just to check in and say hello.

Be an Industry Player

In addition to understanding your client from the inside, you must understand your client in the context of its industry. As a starting point, read the newspaper, whether in print or online. The world is a varied and interconnected place, and no industry exists in a vacuum. It pays to stay informed. Beyond that, you must immerse yourself in your client’s world: Read what your client is reading, attend industry conferences, join trade associations, take advantage of online resources.

Becoming expert in your client’s industry enables you to anticipate legal issues, to resolve legal questions in light of business exigencies, and even to predict future trends in your client’s industry. If you are practicing in a regulated industry such as health or food and drug, for example, staying on top of legislative developments and being the first to master new regulatory requirements can put you at the cutting edge of your client’s industry. Following industry trends over time can help you to see parallels between your client and its competitors and to identify industry solutions that have failed (or succeeded) and why. Not only will you be able to provide your client with up-to-the-moment counsel, you also will have equipped yourself with a powerful tool for attracting new business.

As with any tool, such knowledge is only as effective as the use you make of it. Think broadly rather than narrowly. Help your client identify areas of concern even if they are not in your immediate area of expertise. Remember that most new business is generated from existing client relationships and that others in your firm may be able to address client needs that you cannot. If you are a sole practitioner, develop a good referral network. Your client will appreciate your assistance in identifying effective counsel, and any good referral network will work both ways.

Beyond assisting your existing client, take your industry expertise on the road. Although it can be useful to attend programs geared to the legal community, your best exposure to business issues—and to future clients—is likely to come through industry-related events. Attend industry conferences; better still, be the featured speaker at industry conferences. If you are the speaker at such an event, make the most of the opportunity. Be available for discussion after your speech. Collect business cards. On your return to the office, follow up on questions and conversations with a note or an e-mail, perhaps forwarding a copy of an article you have written on the subject of your talk. And after some time has passed, send a follow-up message, perhaps a subsequent publication or an alert regarding recent developments. Be generous and accessible. Don’t hesitate to offer something free of charge to open doors and to create goodwill.

To-do list

• Join industry trade associations and subscribe to industry magazines, bulletins, and resources targeted at business people as well as those targeted to lawyers.

• Keep abreast of federal, state, and local legislative developments that impact your client’s industry.

• Create or participate in blogs associated with your client’s business or industry.

• Know who your client’s competitors are.

• Get known on the speakers’ circuit in the industry.

• Publish articles in industry journals.

• Develop a support and referral network among lawyers and business colleagues.

• Publish periodic subject matter alerts for circulation to existing and future clients.

• Design a website that highlights your industry expertise.

Make Your Client’s Life Easier

You know your client, understand its business, and have become an industry player. There is still more you can do for your client. You should also understand how your client functions operationally. Where some clients may be well staffed and well organized, many are not. Here, again, is an opportunity for you to make yourself indispensable to your client. Your goal should be to anticipate your client’s needs and to make your client’s life simpler. This can mean something as basic as sending execution documents to your client via a round-trip messenger or with a return Federal Express envelope—to make the return to you as simple as possible for the client. On a more substantive level, it can mean creating templates and form documents to save your client time and money, and to ensure consistency. And for a particular matter, it might mean providing your client with summaries, timelines, action items—whatever it takes to convey information in a way that helps the client feel in control and on top of the matter. We all struggle today with information overload, so the more you can organize your work product and develop systematic processes for the interaction between you and your client, the more readily your client will turn to you as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

To effectively partner with your client in today’s world, you also cannot afford to stand on the sidelines as technology advances. The legal profession has been transformed by technology as much as any other industry. We depend today on technologies that didn’t even exist two decades ago—the Internet being the most obvious example. The delivery of legal services is undergoing another wave of transformation today with the increasing use of document management systems, web-based delivery of legal content, client portals, and collaborative extranets. These technologies can give you a strategic advantage. Document management systems are powerful organizational tools. Extranets literally link you to your client, enabling you to provide your client with direct access—at any time, from any place—to whatever information or documentation you wish to make available. It is extranets—and the technology behind them—that have given rise to the concept of “24/7,” “anywhere/anytime,” and “on-demand legal services.” Consider making an investment in these technologies if you have not already done so.

To-do list

• Constantly look for ways to make your client’s life easier.

• Handle logistics for your client whenever possible.

• Use e-mail, document management, and electronic scheduling and calendaring to manage information effectively for yourself and your client.

• Make an investment in technology.

• Develop an extranet or collaborative workspace to give your client anywhere/anytime access to your work product.

• Build a website that delivers content effectively.

Care

You have become expert in your client’s industry. You can cite chapter and verse. You see the trends and understand their implications. You are technologically savvy and your client knows it. Clearly, you have what it takes to be a successful and valued adviser to your client. Even with all of that in hand, however, you will only succeed if your client believes that you truly care and are committed to its well-being. Only then will the client look to you as an essential factor in its success. This sense of caring is not only the essence of a good attorney-client relationship, it is also the fundamental ingredient of success and satisfaction in the practice of law.

 

Anne Segrest McCulloch was formerly in the legal department of Fannie Mae and has recently moved to its business side; she can be reached at anne_s_mcculloch@fanniemae.com. Joanne Schehl is a partner in the general business group at Arent Fox PLLC in Washington, D.C.; she can be reached at schehl.joanne@arentfox.com. Roxanne Esch is an associate in the Trademark Practice Group at Arent Fox PLLC; she can be reached at esch.roxanne@arentfox.com.

 

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