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Practice Management

Lessons from the Other Side of the Attorney-Client Relationship

Dylan Delbert Crouse


  • This attorney’s transition from a law firm associate to in-house counsel at a community bank highlights the importance of bridging the gap between lawyers and their clients for more effective representation.
  • Businesses face hidden legal workloads, with clients often dealing with unaddressed legal questions. Understanding a client's business is crucial for providing effective legal advice, particularly in process-heavy areas.
  • In-house attorneys work closely with clients, and confrontational legal language can be counterproductive, creating a need for adaptability in communication styles.
Lessons from the Other Side of the Attorney-Client Relationship
courtneyk via iStock

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A year ago, I left my position as an associate with a regional law firm to become in-house counsel at a community bank. While at a firm, I had excellent mentors who exposed me to cases—and, crucially, clients—from the conflict check through the last billing cycle. Consequently, when I left the firm to work at the bank, all my experience in client interaction came from my perspective as an attorney in practice.

I contacted my former colleagues for their advice almost immediately in my new role, but this time as a client. They have advised my bank on many topics over the years, and I got my first taste of the attorney-client relationship from the client’s side. Early on, I also began working with attorneys at other firms representing the bank in cases predating my arrival.

Though my journey is still new, stepping into the role of client has already given me valuable insights that I believe can help attorneys be more effective in their performance. First, I discovered the hidden legal workloads that businesses like banks face. Second, I realized the importance of intimately understanding a client’s business. Finally, I was struck by the marked differences in communication styles between lawyers and almost everyone else. Many of these realizations, while novel to me, also underscore the wisdom imparted by my mentors at the firm, now enriched by the experience of being a client.

The Hidden Legal Workload

Before I fully understood the role I would be taking on as in-house counsel, I had no concept of how many legal questions I would have, believing there were few to worry about. Many bankers do not need a lawyer on a day-to-day basis, and if a question does arise, they consult their senior lender, compliance team, loan processing, or the bank’s policies and procedures.

This approach was a paradigm shift from practicing at a law firm. In that world, I was encouraged to carefully vet even minor issues before proceeding with a case. Like lawyers worldwide, I internalized the anxiety of missing something crucial. In contrast, while bankers are professionals and pay attention to detail when preparing their loan documents, they do not live in fear of error and liability as some attorneys do.

I also realized that although banks appear fine operating without lawyers’ continued input, there is often a constant undercurrent of legal questions that go unnoticed and unaddressed. For reasons of cost, access, or sheer practicality, bankers always make a tier of legal questions according to their policies and professional experiences without the help of outside, or sometimes even inside, counsel. That common kind of filter prevents some lawyers from seeing the chunk of a client’s legal iceberg that floats beneath the surface. For example, legal issues arising in banking operations and regulatory compliance comprised a tiny fraction of my work at the firm but regularly hit my desk once I was on staff. As in practice, the more I served as a resource for my colleagues on these topics, the more issues they brought to me.

Not all lawyers represent banks, but I believe this insight is broadly applicable: clients have more legal issues than either you or they know or realize. Clients often lack the formal training to spot legal issues, and lawyers cannot help with every decision. But practicing attorneys can bridge that gap by integrating themselves into a client’s business, asking questions, and gently probing to advise and address risk appropriately.

Understand the Business

Diving deep into a client’s business has benefits beyond client retention—it’s the best way to provide nuanced and effective legal advice. When leaving a firm, I knew bankruptcy basics and could shepherd a loan through a foreclosure. However, it took bank-facing mentorship before I began to understand how a foreclosure or bankruptcy affects a bank’s capital, liquidity, management, and regulatory relationships. The bank’s lawyer wants to win the case, but the banker’s interest in the case is mostly concerned with its impact on those metrics. Being able to speak to those metrics, directly or indirectly, gives an attorney credibility, increases client confidence, and allows for well-tailored legal advice.

Knowing the business is especially important in process-heavy areas, and the insight is clear. When planning topics for your next brown bag lunch or attending another generic CLE, instead consider focusing that time on a subject dear to your client’s business.

Communication and Confrontation

Regarding the attorney-client relationship, perhaps the biggest difference between practice and in-house work is proximity to clients. In-house attorneys become a daily presence, working shoulder-to-shoulder with team members who are also clients. That closeness eliminates the distance that affects some attorney-client relationships but also brings its own challenges, particularly regarding communication.

Attorneys are trained to operate in our adversarial legal system. This can be an asset as an advocate and in decision-making. However, this forthrightness often comes across as confrontational, particularly to clients who might not be accustomed to such direct communication.

Careful communication is doubly important when the legal advice contradicts a business’s longstanding practices. Affecting organizational change is slow, and too much directness can inadvertently create friction and resistance. Consequently, I focused on adapting my communication style to advise in a way that was sensitive to company culture and effective in conveying the legal stakes involved.  My insight for attorneys in practice is recognizing that our adversarial training can sometimes be a barrier rather than a bridge. The best lawyer I have worked with was as good with people as with the law.

The transition to in-house work taught me how to better represent a bank by being a client myself. It also taught me the importance of diving deep into the client’s business, the unspoken legal workload that clients handle without counsel, and the need for adaptability in communication styles that attorneys need to help their clients successfully. Although I focus on my experience representing banks, I believe these insights are universal to the attorney-client relationship.