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October 11, 2019 Articles

Navigable Waters: Providing Effective Client Services & Developing a Strong Client Base

Insights from Krystal N. Bowen, associate general counsel for Zynga, on how attorneys at various stages of their careers can provide high-caliber client service and show an aptitude for client development.

By Brittney L. Denley

After a successful career in private practice and government, Krystal N. Bowen brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to her new role as associate general counsel for Zynga, the leading developer of the world’s most popular social games, headquartered in San Francisco.

In Bowen’s varied roles, she has not only developed expertise on substantive bodies of law and a command of trial advocacy, she has also honed the critical skill of providing high-caliber client service and an aptitude for client development. In this article, I share Bowen’s reflections on these experiences and her insights on how attorneys at various stages of their careers might likewise develop these skills.

Proactivity and Competence: Keys for Quality Client Service

Ms. Bowen shared that she began her career as a firm associate. While there, she was able to make significant client contact early on; thus she got a head start on developing strong client service skills. She credits this to the support and trust of professional mentors, and chiefly, her own professional proactivity.

Bowen shared in the sentiment that much of the training early-career practitioners receive emphasizes the substantive skills of legal research and writing, and otherwise “managing up.” In Bowen’s experience as a junior associate, she recognized that her work product was largely driven by the need to ensure that her supervisors—the partners to whom she reported—had all that they needed to represent themselves well to, and on behalf of, the client. Despite this being the motivator for external sources, Bowen believed that it was also her responsibility to seek out opportunities to interface with clients, not necessarily in the interest of becoming a partner (though she later would), but rather because she saw it as a means to develop as an attorney. She identifies ensuring that the client gets the support and resources they need as one of the central components of client service. It is with this mindset that Bowen took a series of seemingly small but undoubtedly impactful steps to facilitate client interactions and bolster necessary skills. Bowen worked with her firm’s management to pair with a partner mentor whose practice area most interested her and whose path she sought to emulate. She did not conform to the expectation that she had to remain in the background, which might naturally happen to more junior members of a team. Instead, she spoke up and out during client meetings and calls, with the support of her mentors, and with full recognition that she needed to be knowledgeable about the subject under discussion. This demonstration of competence and confidence enabled partners to entrust Bowen to run her own cases early on because, simply put, they knew she was capable of handling it. Bowen notes that her general approach was grounded in the principle of “not assuming what was given to me was what I had to accept.”

Bowen likewise attributes her exposure to client services to the pro bono work that she took on as an associate. With her primary case load, partners naturally took on a more fixed leadership position. However, with Bowen’s pro bono litigation matters (which spanned in nature from prison reform to asylum), she served as the primary point of interaction for independent clients, developed greater comfort with leading these communications, and gained familiarity with the experience of having her own cases and clients. This positioned Bowen for success in running her own caseload and servicing her client, the U.S. government, as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Central and Northern Districts of California. Subsequently, it enabled to her to return to private practice with confidence in her abilities and without a significant need for external reassurance.

Meaningful Connections: A Key to Client Development

Bowen draws from her experience as a firm partner, to share insights on how more senior attorneys might approach client development. She notes that when she returned to private practice, she did so having tried numerous cases in her years as a federal prosecutor, but not having gained experience in client development. Her time as an associate was spent maintaining other people’s client relationships, but as partner she had to build her own book of business. Bowen reflects that, at the time, she believed that this required the formulaic approach of going out to “work a room” at networking events, by handing out as many business cards as possible, and convincing potential clients that she was an “ace” and that they should hire her firm—an approach that was altogether unappealing and outside of her nature. What she later learned (and wishes she had known sooner) was that client development is really about making meaningful connections and sustaining them over time. This meant that she was able to change her expectations and approach. She offers that while you may be able to develop a client relationship on the fly with someone new, it is equally effective to 1.) maintain your existing network of friends, classmates, and colleagues (Bowen highlights that your friends grow and advance with you, and building professional partnerships where these genuine relationships exist serves as “the most fun and most fruitful” basis for connection); 2.) make a few new meaningful connections (e.g., at professional engagements, networking events, or even less formal settings), rather than overcasting the net; and 3.) sustain those connections by maintaining communication, meeting with people over coffee or lunch, etc., and sharing your interests and areas of expertise. She encourages attorneys to be open to the possibility that the first several times interfacing with someone may not yield a client relationship. That is, at the onset, they may not have any work to offer. Nevertheless, establishing and maintaining trusted relationships will place an attorney and firm at the forefront of a potential clients’ minds, should these circumstances change, and they develop a need for counsel and/or transition to a position of influence in their organizations to determine which counsel best suits their needs.

Additionally, Bowen advises that establishing a publication record and participating in speaking engagements on specialized subjects also aids in client development. This is because as new clients interface with a firm, they will likely research the attorneys therein and look for industry recognition of their areas of expertise. Having written and spoken on the subjects of interest is a simple, yet effective way to demonstrate to clients your specialization and credibility, which informs their determination that it make sense to hire you.

Finally, Bowen notes that consistent involvement in endeavors external to a firm practice, likewise helps to bolster the practice. Participation in bar associations, board service, community and industry leadership positions, all serve to facilitate meaningful connections and increase recognition, which, as mentioned above are essential and effective means to build and maintain a book of business. Bowen adds that these involvements, also serve to remind practitioners that their worth is not inextricably tied to the firm or other organization that employs them, but is rather tied to the character and skills that they bring to the profession.

Client Collaboration: A Key to Effective Internal Counsel

After her years as a firm partner, Krystal Bowen made a thoughtful and timely transition to serve as in-house counsel for Zynga, first focusing on privacy and investigation, and then taking on the position of associate general counsel. When asked how she has since shifted her focus in this new role, Bowen aptly framed the discussion noting this role puts her in the position of both a client and a collaborator.

In addressing her newfound role as client, Bowen noted that in her prior experience as outside counsel supporting organizations, her goal was to make inside counsel look good, by arming them with comprehensive information to bring back to clients’ general counsel or other appointed leadership. Now, her internal role makes her a client of such outside counsel, and thus able to evaluate their service from an insider’s perspective. Accordingly, she has found that what a client values, over the lengthy memos and detailed digests that she once thought were useful, is clarity and succinctness. In a landscape, where, in many instances clients are reading written communications on smartphones while they are in transit from one meeting or office to the next, what they most need up front is 1.) a clear and succinct explanation of relevant issues, 2.) practical, usable advice, based on a keen understanding of the clients’ businesses, and 3.) guidance on how to identify and address the issues, while balancing any potential risks. Bowen has a personal preference for these key points to be delivered in bullet form but expresses that the general takeaway is that, in her view, counsel should lead with these, and allow the client to determine whether a deeper dive (i.e. a more detailed or theoretical analysis) is useful and/or necessary.

In her capacity as counsel, Bowen asserts that she does not view the people with whom she works as clients, but rather as partners. Resisting the stereotype that “Legal is the Department of No,” she recognizes that her role is collaborative in nature. Bowen works to spot and prevent issues with various teams, thinks through issues with them, and partners with them to find appropriate resolutions. These teams are often comprised of non-lawyers, who are highly intellectual and specialized practitioners within their areas of the company (in Bowen’s case, these are often engineers). All team members have the charge of making their respective technical expertise, digestible for those at the table who do not share it, for the common goal of advancing the company. Bowen offers that these communications across technical lines require active listening, repeating back, and asking questions, all of which are tenets of strong communication, and which make for productive partnerships across the board. Bowen notes that, in her experience as in-house counsel, if colleagues within the organization feel that the attorneys have a nuanced understanding of their goals, and are inclined to try to find solutions (rather than simply rejecting them) they will be more inclined to collaborate with and seek advice.

Brittney L. Denley is associate director of equal opportunity and affirmative action and Title IX investigator at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

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