1. Know What You Don't Know
Admitting a lack of knowledge in any subject is a lawyer’s worst nightmare. While lawyers are expected to be the expert on many topics, there is no possible way that lawyers can understand their clients’ businesses without first acknowledging what they do not know.
I’ve been on full, hour-long calls with a business team and one of our outside attorneys where, throughout the call, the business team was referring to internal acronyms. Of course, I understood these acronyms because I work with this business team regularly; however, I did not realize until after the call that our outside attorney did not know what we were talking about when referring to these acronyms. I spoke in the language of the business to our business people, and the outside attorney should have asked for clarification during the call. Instead, this attorney called me afterward to clarify the acronyms, making me think that he didn’t understand what we were talking about for most of the call. We can all empathize with this attorney because no one—especially a lawyer—wants to advertise that they don’t know something.
Remember that, in addition to being experts on certain topics, lawyers are also known for being thoughtful, inquisitive, and asking the right questions. One way to demonstrate a solid understanding of your client’s business is to ask questions and acknowledge that there are some things you don’t yet know.
2. Listen to Your Client
Unfortunately, the stereotype for lawyers is that they are not good listeners but enjoy listening to the sound of their own voices. Listening to learn, instead of listening to respond, is an important skill for any attorney. Clients that are companies appreciate clear and concise statements from business people and their attorneys. Having short and clear answers to client questions, instead of rambling briefs, are extremely valuable to clients.
Of course, you can’t answer everything clearly and concisely; however, your business client will greatly appreciate a direct answer to the question posed, followed by any additional explanation or disclaimers you want to express. Be sure to review any documentation your client provided before requesting additional information. You don’t want to ask your client for information they have already provided.
When asking your clients their business goals, focus on open-ended questions, such as: what keeps them up at night, and what are their top business goals for the next six months/year/five years? Stop talking once you ask these open-ended questions, and listen before starting to talk about your proposed strategies for addressing them. Your goal should be to deliver practical, commercial legal advice, and to achieve this, you must understand their businesses and the unique challenges they face. You cannot do this without truly listening.
3. Track Recurring Issues and Help Your Client Strategize
Certain issues may become patterns in your client’s business practices, whether your client realizes it or not. At times, these patterns can conceal themselves as underlying issues in claims/litigation that the company has been doing for so long that it does not realize the root cause of the recurring claims. As an outsider, even if you may not understand every acronym discussed by the business teams, you benefit from an objective perspective. If you have multiple clients within the same industry, you also have the added benefit of seeing how other companies within the same industry handle similar situations and can advise on the same. If you notice a theme or recurring issues from the same client, don’t be afraid to point them out, ask whether your client has thought about a plan to address them, and advise on best practices.
4. Subscribe to Newsletters and Blogs Related to Your Client's Industry
In addition to keeping up with developments in the law, you should intentionally keep up with your client’s news and the client’s industry news. As in-house counsel, I must fully understand the big picture when advising my client, so I carve out time each week to read newsletters, articles, and blogs related to my company’s industry. Lawyers who represent companies, whether in-house or outside counsel, should be doing this so that they are not advising the company in a vacuum but instead understand the entire business ecosystem in which the company operates.