September 30, 2012

TRAINING FOR TOMORROW: Making Your Client's Life Easier

Mark Kosminskas

"Sophisticated," "value added," "business sense," "client-focused," "responsive." Go to any website of almost any law firm, small or large, and you will find these phrases displayed all over them. Lawyers struggle constantly to find ways to differentiate themselves and to identify ways in which they will stand out and make themselves an indispensible and valued part of your team. Moreover, they are under constant pressure, especially in these times of contraction, to open up new doors, build new relationships, and de-commoditize themselves. It is no mean feat.

I have spent approximately half of my career as a consumer of legal services and the other half as a producer of legal services. Being on both sides of the fence has given me a unique perspective into the lawyer/client relationship. As a lawyer, I have been in the position of managing client matters, attempting to grow clients and obtain new ones. As a client, I have had to manage "lawyers as vendors," and derive value from them to solve business problems. I have found that as much as they claim otherwise, lawyers routinely muff opportunities to ingratiate themselves to their clients. Here are some common ways lawyers blow opportunities with their clients.

  • First impressions. It is astonishing how many firms persistently ask for the first project (as instructed by their marketing consultants), then deliver product that is not according to spec. Worse, in the rush to get something out the door to prove their responsiveness, they send something out with typos or other errors that show that the document was not proofread. Be very careful with the first matter. You only get one chance to make a first impression. Eat time if you must, but make sure that that first document is perfect.
  • Going dark. All lawyers claim to be responsive, but reality does not always match those claims. I work with several law firms and consulting firms that almost always provide same day responsiveness, even if it is to drop a call, text, or e-mail late at night to let me know that they received my message and let me know when they can respond. We all understand that people are busy, but it is disconcerting to have a lawyer seem to disappear off the planet when a quick e-mail or text message will suffice.
  • Being a pest. Don't presume a level of intimacy that isn't there. Don't be a pest. Lawyers often presume that going to lunch or playing golf is the way to build a relationship. This is a myth. Unlike wealth, which can be created, expanded, and multiplied, time is a zero-sum game. A lunch is an hour-and-a-half or two-hour affair. Golf is a six-hour deal--more if you include travel time. Don't presume that a client has that much time to give you, especially early in a relationship. Time I give to you is time I am taking away from my work or my family. That doesn't mean that client entertainment isn't an important tool, but you need to be careful about imposing on the time of others, and calibrating the right activity with the right person. If the other elements of relationship building are not there, it won't matter.
  • Value added service. Lawyering is a service business. The value of those services will usually be judged by the client's employees with whom the lawyer is working. There is no better way for an attorney to endear himself or herself to those individuals (and to increase their perception of the value of the attorney's services) than to make them look good. Great lawyers help those individuals make good decisions by appropriately framing up risks and choices, and helping them make an accurate assessment of the probabilities of certain outcomes. By helping the client's employees look good, they raise the value of their services. They help prevent the client from making disastrous decisions and make good decisions turn into great decisions. Conversely, I have also received memorandums that I didn't ask for (where it was apparent that the true purpose of the memorandum was to cover the law firm's risk, not mine). Further, I have had law firms (without consulting me first), launch out on a full scale investigation into a risk that was immaterial.
  • Neglecting to act as radar for the client. This is why it is so troublesome when lawyers invest with clients. I want a dispassionate, analytical perspective, which is almost impossible to deliver if you have skin in the game. A lawyer is sometimes in a unique position to pick up on signals that the other side cannot signal directly to the opposing principal. Every business problem is essentially a math and probabilities problem to be solved. Recently, in a very emotionally driven and escalating negotiation when I was exercising enormous leverage on the other side, one of the attorneys I work with called me in the middle and said, "Now might be a good time to demonstrate a little conciliation." It was the perfect time for that, and with a small goodwill gesture, many other contentious issues settled out very quickly. The dispassionate nature, the timing, and sense of where the negotiations were progressing led to a great result.
  • Communications. Lawyers must keep in mind how a client processes information and via what medium. While this may vary quite a bit from individual to individual, it is critical that counsel summarize and frame issues succinctly for the client. A bullet point summary keeps focus on the core issues. Too often, I receive lengthy briefs or documents with the missive, "Please see attached." Be a lawyer and not simply an e-mail forwarding service. One of the most important functions is to summarize detail and tease out key points that require decisions. Additionally, clients now review communications via Blackberry or iPhone on the go, so a cover e-mail summarizing the important issues can be an extremely efficient tool to get matters resolved quickly.
  • Billing. I saved this for last because I am typically not a nitpicker when it comes to bills, but there are a few bugaboos that are irritants like charging for secretarial overtime (how you manage your costs is up to you), unnecessary overnight delivery charges (e-mail and PDF files have largely done away with that), and time descriptions that do not justify the time billed. For instance, I recently saw a bill with eight total hours for a simple promissory note with revisions. At most, this task justified a half hour.

I have been fortunate to have worked with some fine lawyers, resolving some very difficult situations brought on by the worst and most persistent economic downturn in a lifetime. These lawyers have added value by serving as an alter ego, and were integral to a decision making process that led us to some very good outcomes. Unfortunately, I have also had occasion to work with lawyers that committed one or more of the seven deadly sins, and you realize that although many complain that there are "too many lawyers," the reality is that there are too few really great ones.

Mark Kosminskas

Mark Kosminskas is senior vice president of MB Financial Bank in Rosemont, Illinois.