Constant improvement of 3 lawyer attributes will improve product

A look at business awareness in the delivery of legal services, differentiable expertise, and the ability to build client relationships

In a prior article, I indicated that law firms (and in-house legal departments) need to look at their lawyers (including themselves) as the product, something to be cared for and supported, but also challenged and analyzed in a brutally honest way. The care, support, challenge and analysis will meaningfully improve the product if provided around these three lawyer attributes: business awareness in the delivery of legal services, differentiable expertise, and the ability to build client relationships (as inside and outside counsel).

Business awareness in the delivery of services

Clients routinely rate "knowledge of my business" as among the top, if not the top, attribute they cite in lawyers they enjoy working with. It is an attribute that is not covered in law schools, and many young lawyers (especially those who did not work before law school) are fairly oblivious to their clients' existence outside the lawsuit or transaction on their plate. Transactional groups are historically better attuned than litigators in this regard, but most fall far short.

Business awareness includes of course industry knowledge, such as where the client's market share is heading, the latest quarterly reports, new products from client and the like. However, it also includes knowledge of how business is conducted within the client. Most lawyers who go in-house after leaving firms comment about how different the culture is at clients and how little outside counsel understand about that culture. Outside counsel often do not understand reporting-lines, budgets, titles and the most effective way to communicate inside an organization. For example, litigators naturally tend to have a focus on the court system. This is entirely appropriate. They are focused on how to communicate with that judge or jury to get the best result. Often, however, they are not aware enough about the communications within the client. This is not just outside counsel's communication with his or her contact, but how that contact needs to communicate within the client organization. Disregarding what seem like bureaucratic reporting requirements because "we're doing well in the case and will get a good result," can cause significant headaches for clients. Outside counsel need to understand the needs of their clients.

Differentiable expertise

I recently heard a general counsel for one of the top ten banks in the U.S. asked what he looked for when selecting outside counsel. His response was immediate and unqualified. He said "specific expertise in the issue that the bank is facing." In 2014, clients demand that, and they want verifiable answers. Clients rarely conclude “all litigation is the same,” or "all deals are the same." This does not necessarily mean that the same lawyer cannot help clients repeatedly with varying matters, but it does mean that the lawyers' expertise must be differentiable.

One of three conclusions often lead to selection of the appropriate counsel: They know us (know the client, how to efficient extract information we will need for the matter and work within client's system); they know the subject matter (have had hundreds of matters just like this one); or they know the tribunal or regulatory body (they practice heavily in jurisdiction at issue, they served as a regulator).

Providing our most talented young lawyers with experiences that increase their skills in each of the areas above should be the focal point of lawyer development. It takes consistent and meticulous planning to achieve the correct balance, and it isn't over when the lawyer becomes a partner. It needs to be a career-long effort. All too often, the reality of meeting short-term financial metrics is not aligned with these key development goals. The hours-heavy engagements early in an associate's career can establish the lawyer's work ethic, reliability and responsiveness. However, if they are not helping the lawyer understand a key client or industry, become an expert on a subject matter with lasting value, or earn a reputation within a court system or regulatory body, there is a limit to how valuable the experiences are.

Building client relationships

This is the lifeblood of law firms and the rarest of the skill sets among talented lawyers. To be certain, there are some who excel innately at business development. The vast majority of us, however, do not. Those who excel develop the skills by happenstance, or through a business development mentors at their firm, on an ad hoc basis. While most firms will provide some general business development training to their lawyers, all too often there is no meaningful evaluation by the firm of the relative business development acumen of its rising stars.

This skill is not limited to the entrepreneurial lawyer who brings in a new client by skillfully networking. It may be more valuable (for both the firm and the in-house legal department) when the lawyer already working on matters for a particular client understands the value of building client relationships. Every outside counsel interaction with a client businessperson has the potential to help solidify his or her knowledge of the client and make him or her a more valuable resource for the in-house legal team. Lawyers build relationships when they remember the names, take time to understand the connection between a recent contact and others they already know, follow up with thoughtful (not annoying) notes, and look for opportunities to pass along helpful information about the work your colleagues are involved in. Firms will develop better lawyers if they look more granularly at the lawyer's business development habits, rather than simply focusing on the net numbers.

As lawyers in firms and as inside counsel, we are our own product. At every step, we should work to improve our lawyers' business awareness in the delivery of legal services, differentiable expertise; and ability to build client relationships.

Contributing Author

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Kevin Long

Kevin Long is the national chair of Quarles & Brady LLP’s Commercial Litigation Group. His practice focuses on construction and real estate litigation. He is also...

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