Law Practice Magazine
THE INTERNATIONAL ISSUE
As business becomes increasingly global, more lawyers are trying to cultivate clients abroad. However, traditional American client development techniques do not necessarily translate well across cultural divides. Succeeding at global rainmaking requires a different skill set. Here are some key to-dos.
Develop a Global Perspective
Many lawyers in North America take a U.S.-centric view of current events, economics, business trends, client needs and even business development strategies—in part because the United States was the key financial center of the world economy for so many years. As the writer Anaïs Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.” However, just as the economy has increasingly globalized, so do lawyers need to globalize their perspectives.
For starters, to court international clients and prospects, you need to understand global business from their perspective. Many non-U.S. news outlets—like the BBC and the Economist—do a better job of reporting on global business developments than American news sources do. You can also stay abreast of international legal trends by joining groups like the International Bar Association and the ABA Section of International Law, reading their publications and listserve posts, and attending their conferences and teleclasses.
You must also know enough about the principles of non-common law legal systems (such as civil law and shari’ah), and various areas of the law, to be able to spot relevant issues. This task can seem overwhelming. However, the goal is not to become an expert in a variety of fields or legal systems—the goal is to be able to spot legal issues, and then when needed call in specialists, such as foreign counsel. Of course, the more you work on matters with international aspects, the more real-life insight you will gain into foreign legal issues.
Lastly, having a general interest in other cultures really enhances global rainmaking. Prospective clients can sense whether a lawyer is genuinely interested in them and their culture—or is just trying to get the economic benefit of their new business.
Whether it’s North American lawyers going global or non-North American lawyers entering U.S. and Canadian markets, I notice one blunder time and time again: lawyers’ failure to adapt their native country’s client development techniques to a particular foreign market. In contrast, lawyers who succeed at global rainmaking continuously hone their cross-cultural client development skills.
Successful global rainmakers know how to communicate best with their prospective clients, and they make their efforts culturally appropriate. Often they instinctively adapt their communication style. For example, they might adjust their pace, pitch and inflection; the words they choose; or how forthrightly they speak. They might also adjust their body language, level of formality and the like.
They also tap into their clients’ cultural values. For example, recently I worked with a firm whose lawyers were cultivating Chinese clients. We tweaked the firm’s traditional client gift (packages of golf balls with the firm logo) by repackaging the balls in groups of eight—considered a lucky number in China—and steering clear of white balls—because to many Chinese that color symbolizes death.
Advance research into cultural norms really helps, and thanks to the Internet, such research has become easy and painless. Simply typing in a search like “business customs in [name of country]” brings many results. Books about foreign business customs abound, one of my favorites being the often humorous Dos and Taboos of Body Language Around the World by Roger Axtell. As this book mentions, seemingly innocuous hand gestures (such as the “okay” symbol popular in the States) can be highly offensive in other cultures (in this case, Brazil).
While in the process of rainmaking, lawyers should scrutinize their efforts and adapt them if necessary. I helped one frustrated managing partner on this very issue. Despite having a well-connected partner from a particular Latin-American country, the firm failed to attract clients there. It became clear that the managing partner’s hard-charging style—and unrealistic expectations about rainmaking time frames—was working against the firm. So to adjust the firm’s approach, we combined the managing partner’s strategic insights with the Latin-American partner’s relationship-focused rainmaking style.
It is true that globalization has diluted cultural values. However, to the extent that lawyers can still tap into culture-specific values, they will have an advantage over others who do not.
Americans’ direct communication style—and desire for fast progress—causes many cross-cultural blunders. Often U.S. lawyers ask for business too quickly and never even realize their gaffe. The potential client will just never hire the lawyer—and be too polite to explain why.
Cross-cultural snafus frequently result from differences in values. In many foreign cultures, long-term relationships are a prerequisite to being hired. In China, for example, foreign lawyers must grapple with guanxi—a tradition that prizes relationships and the obligations of mutual assistance arising from them. Similarly, in many Arab and Latin-American countries, U.S. lawyers must expend considerable time and effort developing close personal relationships and important connections in their targets’ business communities.
Conversely, lawyers from relationship-based cultures must ramp up their directness and assertiveness when cultivating American clients. Recently I worked with a Latin-American firm on boosting its client development in the States. The firm’s gracious, indirect communication style had proven ineffective in the fast-paced U.S. market. However, it was able to improve its U.S. rainmaking by learning to promote the firm and the individual attorneys more directly and assertively—and to do so in all forms of communication, including marketing materials, the firm’s Web site and in-person communication.
All lawyers who’ve succeeded in developing clients across cultures at some point realized they had to step outside their comfort zone and take the long-term view to develop business abroad. Global rainmaking requires tailoring your client development strategies to each client’s cultural perspective. This takes time, effort and ingenuity, but the global rewards can be extraordinary.
Janet H. Moore is an experienced international business lawyer who helps law firms and lawyers succeed with customized global rainmaking strategies. She serves as Vice-Chair of the ABA’s International Law Practice Management Forum and contributed to the ABA’s best-selling Careers in International Law, 3rd Edition (2008).