Failure is not something we relish, but something we need. Through failure, we grow and learn to take risks. As a young lawyer, I saw this firsthand. One of the lawyers in our firm (Lawyer A, for this article’s purpose) was snowed in at an airport and ended up in the bar. Lawyer A was there most of the day and, as it happened, made friends with the General Counsel of a major company. It’s the kind of company everyone wants as a client—a prestigious, international company. Lawyer A is a great lawyer and a real people person; Lawyer A bonded quickly with the General Counsel, enough to win our firm a pitch for some major work.
Despite having the wrong background for the work being pitched, Lawyer A put together a team and we all visited the client. All of us on the team wanted to win the client, and we helped Lawyer A “be the part” despite the fact that Lawyer A’s background was not right for this client’s work.
We won the work—hooray! Now we had to actually do the work. Due to the sometimes perverse nature of law firm compensation systems, Lawyer A held on tightly to the client relationship and the management of the work. The former was fine; the client liked Lawyer A. The latter was a disaster; Lawyer A was not capable of managing the type of work we received, and attempts to “fake it” were transparent. Lawyer A become a bottleneck to getting anything done and refused to let others deal directly with the client. Dispute a wonderful beginning, the client was dissatisfied and eventually pulled the work from our firm.
We—all of us—failed, first by having a compensation system that encouraged client hoarding rather than client servicing. We failed also by pitching Lawyer A as the right lawyer for the client’s work; we didn’t listen to the client. We failed ourselves too since the episode ended up creating conflicts for no upside.
After the work was pulled, we had a serious internal conversation. We changed the way we did things and the way we paid ourselves. A couple of us went back to the client and said, “Look—we failed you.” We explained what went wrong, what we had changed, and why they should give us another chance. I recall saying, “Give us six months to show you who we really are. Pay us whatever you think is fair—our rates, nothing, something in between.” That was risky, but we had all agreed we were in it together and our reputation was on the line with a very visible company.
The client agreed to give us another chance—we delivered. The client is still a client, now one of our largest and most loyal. In retrospect, I believe that our failure taught us to change our ways, to grow professionally, and to be humble; we admitted our failure, to the client and to ourselves. We are all better for it.