I asked three senior Biglaw partners if it was possible to narrow down their success to one factor above all others, and if so, what.
Are they willing to work harder than others? Are they more knowledgeable about the law than others? Are they more knowledgeable about policy? Is their mind more analytical or inquisitive than most? Are they brilliant writers? Is their advice more comprehensive, thoughtful, or correct? Do they, more than most, have the ability to take a welter of considerations, sort them out, and make sound recommendations?
Believe it or not, while helpful, they did not credit any of these items as key to their success. Instead, each answer was some version of they developed clients for life. That is their secret. They created a special bond with their clients — a very deep and personal relationship where the client looks to them as their lawyer in all matters for decades.
- “I think my ability to get close with my clients and understand what the clients need has helped me both in keeping current clients and having them recommend me to others.”
- “I have had some clients that I first did good work for 20 years ago. I have been told that I think creatively about meeting their needs. Sometimes that is even true.”
- “In many cases — three that I can think of off-hand, I have had the unique opportunity to grow with my clients and understand their business from the get go.”
I asked them how they developed these deep relationships. Their answers were somewhat varied but seem to all involve asking thoughtful questions and actually listening to the answers.
- “When starting any new engagement, I set out to understand the client’s quirks and how they think so that helps me understand what they really want when they ask me a question.”
- “I am constantly playing the role of private investigator when they present a problem and I ask a lot of questions. Many times they don’t have the answer but they point me to someone who does.”
- “I learned everything I could about their business including, in one case, traveling to three of their plants on my own dime and I stay current with industry developments that might impact them.”
I asked them for specific tips for young lawyers to follow their model. Here are their responses:
- Ask questions that make it easy for your client to start talking. “The more they talk, the more you’ll learn. The more you know about them, the easier it will be for you to provide strong counsel. The goal is to understand your client so deeply that you will be able to articulate the client’s challenges and needs just as well or even clearer than the client can.”
- Show the client that she is the center of your world. “Hang on her every word. Ask thought provoking questions and follow-up questions. Reiterate what she says to confirm your understanding, so say something like ‘you said…’”
- Be sincere and try to stay within your and the client’s comfort zones. “Getting to know a client or prospective client may be a challenge for people who don’t come to it naturally, because it can appear clumsy or intrusive if insincere. So, proceed as comfortable for you and the client. The best opportunities to get to know someone might be on safe subjects such as work-related and professional matters. But the more productive area is likely in sincere interests: causes, hobbies, reading subjects, schools, family, sports, food, etc. These areas may have to be approached tentatively and, depending on the client, might best be achieved over time.”
- Try to feel the client’s pain with the questions you ask. “Why is the issue presented a problem? How long has it been a problem? In what specific ways does the problem limit you? Why is it crucial to eliminate the problem? How does the current situation (dealing with the problem) make you feel? What would their life look like without this problem? And what would the company’s situation look like without this problem? What are the obstacles between where you are and where you want to be? What have you tried to solve the problem?”
- Distinguish your approach between the short-term and long-term. “In the short term, the goal is to know the client well enough to best serve their needs. So, the best focus might be on a bonded relationship that serves the client, and sustains the business relationship. And, of course, at bottom you need to successfully deliver solutions to the clients’ problems. In the long term, becoming an expert in the client may prove very efficient. This approach may be the difference between spending an inordinate amount of time developing clients versus maintaining a substantial clientele.”
Image courtesy of lekkyjustdoit.