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April 30, 2015 Articles

Advice to Young Attorneys from a New In-House Lawyer

By David L. Schwan

Ever since I entered the ranks of in-house counsel last fall, many of my attorney friends have requested my advice on client service. I have thought a great deal about this question, and I believe I have learned enough over the past few months to provide some helpful thoughts going forward. My overarching advice can probably be summed up in a recent quote I read from Albert Einstein: “Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.” Amen. Consistent with that theme, this article provides five items of advice in two categories—namely, enhancing your communication quality and demonstrating your value. I am confident that by following these tips, you will go a long way to being of value to your clients and success will follow.

Enhancing the Quality of Client Communications

Tip 1: Keep in regular contact. This tip may seem like a no-brainer to many of you, but it bears repeating. Obviously, an attorney should return emails and calls from the client promptly. If you need additional time to research an issue or obtain an answer to a particular question, you should take that time, but let the client know that you are doing so. Put yourself in my shoes: If I send an email to you with a question that requires additional activity or research, let me know if you need more time to confirm something. That response, which may not fully answer my original question, at least helps me to understand that you are seeking the information I need. Otherwise, I have no way of knowing whether you actually saw and understood my question or overlooked it in a world of clogged in-boxes.

Further, think about ways to be proactive on a case or matter that demonstrates your interest regardless of ancillary activities that come and go. For instance, if a motion for summary judgment has been submitted and pending before the court for several months, and you have an idea to help expedite the process by filing a supplement to the motion with new authority, bring that idea to the client. Such strategies show your creativity in pushing for a resolution of the case and the fact that the case remains important to you even when nothing is required in the near term.

Tip 2: Communicate large expenditures to the client. This also seems self-evident to some, but there are times when attorneys do not give clients the courtesy of knowing when major expenditures of money are being spent on a case. For example, if you believe that an early summary judgment motion could be case-dispositive or even could knock out a few claims, discuss that with the client before embarking on costly research and drafting the motion. It is very unsettling to get a large bill for services that you were previously unaware had been provided.

It is also helpful to discuss these issues in advance with the client to learn about the client’s preferences and desires for case management. There may be reasons beyond this single case that the client wants to be aggressive, or less so, depending on the circumstances. So always keep in touch, especially on the larger issues, so that your client is not surprised by the bill or, worse, by unexpected questions from his or her supervisors.

Tip 3: Do more than just forward an email. Forwarding an email as a case update presents twin evils: It is unhelpful to the client and is a missed opportunity for the attorney. There are many times when you will receive an email from opposing counsel, or a notice from the court, that you need to provide to the client. That is the first step, of course, and what you do with that communication can be the vital next step. Sometimes attorneys will forward the email and either say nothing at all or simply ask for the client’s thoughts without any background or recommendation. This is very unhelpful to the client—he or she may not have the immediate background that the outside counsel does, and the client cannot make an informed decision about a course of action without it.

The second evil, the missed opportunity, is directly related to the first. Simply forwarding an email without any, or with minimal, comment prevents you from being helpful to the client and demonstrating your value. Instead, by thinking through the latest event in the matter and by providing your thoughts and the pros and cons of the available choices, including any business considerations, you’ll show the client that you’ve carefully considered the options and made a reasoned recommendation. That is critical to the client, allowing him or her to make a clear decision and have the information to communicate the choice to other decision makers within the organization. It also helps the client see your analytical skills in action for that particular case or matter. Remember that the client may deal with many similar cases in the future, and you want to be at the top of the list for consideration as to that particular engagement. Showing that you understand the issues of that case well, and that you can think critically and communicate your thoughts cogently to the client, can be invaluable to your practice.

Demonstrating Your Value

Tip 4: Think about the cost, and value, of your proposals. Turning more directly to your value as an attorney, many lawyers have heard about client cost considerations, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis. That is certainly a reality, and cost should inform your recommendations to the client. However, you should view cost as one step in marketing the value of your proposal on a particular matter. There are many times when I am be faced with several different proposals on how to handle a matter, and considering the value of a particular option is quite important to me. For example, while taking a certain course in a case will be expensive on the front end, its value may be much higher in the long term. There may be other cases just like it around the corner, and spending more on this case now may help control higher costs later. So think about issues of cost and how you can turn reticence about cost into excitement about the value provided.

Tip 5: Consider other ways your services can assist the client. In dealing with the client, remember that your particular case or matter is not the only issue the client is addressing at that time. He or she may have several concerns particular to that company or industry. You should be generally aware of the key issues that face that client, and listen to what the client expresses about frustrations in dealing with particular new laws or regulations, for example. In short, you may have other skills and services to offer that client, and the client may not realize that those skills are needed within the organization.

Further, to learn more about your client’s company, you should leverage technology to your advantage. Follow the company on social media, and place a Google alert, for example, so that you’re aware of company headlines when those are made. I have several friends who follow their clients on Twitter, and it keeps them informed about the company on a nearly real-time basis. That knowledge can be very helpful when working with the client generally. It shows that you care about all aspects of the client’s business, not just the narrow case or matter on which you are currently engaged. That can be very valuable for both of you in the attorney-client relationship.

Improving the relationship between attorneys and clients is very important to me. And particularly for young attorneys, who are already navigating new terrain at the firm, I hope this advice will help guide you in your client interactions so you can become a better service provider. The key takeaway from these tips is that you should always strive to make your value as an attorney clear and vital. To do that, you must enhance your communications with the client so that he or she is well aware of what is going on and can make informed decisions on what needs to be done. The client should also have a clear understanding of your value generally and what you can add to the client’s needs in other areas. I wish you the best of luck in your practice and your future communications with clients.

Keywords: mass torts litigation, in-house counsel, communications

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