The Client in the Next Office

Alice E. Burke has been a writing advisor at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago, Illinois, since 2008.

Many years ago, I was a fledgling associate in a small employment law firm. I worked primarily with the firm’s more senior associates and junior partners. A few months into my career, one of the senior partners, Bill, called me into his office and asked me to respond to an employment discrimination charge filed against one of his clients. I suspect Bill chose me because my office was next to his, and he could summon me merely by loudly calling my name.

I was more than a little nervous. Bill was a named partner whose reputation as an excellent writer preceded him. (Years later, his obituary noted that Bill “was known for a gifted and concise writing style and for wielding a blue pencil that spared no one.”) I studied the case file and the law. After painstaking effort, I gave him my draft position statement. I thought it was good, in part because I had already run it by several senior associates. Then I waited.

Days later, I heard my name from Bill’s office. When I entered, Bill handed me a sheaf of papers torn from a yellow legal pad and covered in his distinctive blue scrawl. The topmost yellow sheet was taped messily to a half page of white printer paper, which I recognized as the heading from my draft. He had literally taken some scissors, cut off my entire letter, rewritten the whole thing, and grafted his draft onto the portion of my draft that my secretary prepared. (Bill’s obituary neglected to mention his skill with scissors.) I may have cried.

His words are etched in my mind: “Your draft actually was pretty good. The problem is your style. You have a homey, folksy style, and that’s okay. But it’s not my style.” Bill’s words hit me: I wasn't the one who would sign the letter, he was. What I wrote didn’t sound at all like something he would write. While I had done a good job representing his client by presenting the case in a well-organized and easy-to-read fashion, I had done a horrible job representing my client: him.

I frequently remind law students that along with learning how to think and write like a lawyer, they are learning another critical skill: how to adapt their writing to conform to their audience’s expectations. Lawyers write for a variety of different audiences, often simultaneously. Sometimes the audience is a decision maker—a judge, arbitrator, or mediator. Other times, the audience is an attorney representing another party in a lawsuit or transaction. The audience could be the public or a potential juror. Additionally, the audience always includes the client. After all, the client pays the bill.

For a young associate, who is the client? To most young associates, clients are largely unseen; you might hear a disembodied client voice on speakerphone in a partner’s office, or even glimpse a client walking down a distant hallway. To most clients, young associates are all but invisible. This is nothing personal. It merely reflects that the client expects to deal with the hired partner, not one of the young associates the partner’s firm happens to employ.

A young associate’s client is not the name on the file jacket. The client is the attorney who assigns the work. This reality brings the formerly elusive client sharply into focus. I overlooked this when I handed Bill a draft written in my voice (the homey, folksy one) instead of his. I may have been persuasive on the facts and the law, but Bill’s client didn’t hire my voice to represent it—it hired Bill’s. Bill had to satisfy his client. I had to satisfy Bill.

My client didn’t fire me. I continued to assist on the file, and I got to see how Bill wrote the position statement and represented his client. The next time Bill asked me to work with him, my first stop was his secretary’s desk for sample documents he had drafted so I could familiarize myself with his style. Then I reviewed the file, researched the law, and developed and presented the client’s arguments. I clearly and persuasively advocated for the client, but this time I tried to do it in Bill’s voice rather than mine. When we won, Bill’s client was happy, and so was mine.

To keep your client’s business, you must make that client happy. You must meet the client’s expectations promptly, attentively, thoroughly, knowledgeably, and respectfully. Sometimes your client is an outside party who has hired you, and sometimes your client is the partner in the next office. If you display solid client-relations skills dealing with your internal clients, you will get to work with outside clients sooner.

If Bill could read this article, I don’t think he would reach for his infamous blue pencil (or worse, his scissors) and return it completely rewritten. He might have suggestions, and they would probably be good ones, but I bet he would think the article is well-written. He would probably say, “Yes, that sounds exactly like something Alice would write—it’s a little bit homey and kind of folksy too, and that’s okay because that’s her style and it’s her article.” If I could, I would thank him for being one of my very first clients and for making me a better writer and a better lawyer.

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