More than a few times as I’ve wandered the halls of the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria during my first two years of law school, my grey hair has caused otherwise intelligent (I’m sure) people to mistake me for a professor. Of course, they rarely make that mistake after I open my mouth during class, when it quickly becomes apparent that I’m like every other student trying to make sense out of this mystifying thing called “the law.”
As a second-career student, one thing that’s surprised me is how little attention is paid, relatively speaking, in and out of class, to equipping students to deal with clients. There seems to be a lot of emphasis on communicating with judges and senior partners, but clients — corporate clients in particular — aren’t talked about much, even though many of us will get to know them really well at some point in actual practice.
So having spent a number of years in executive management roles in the technology sector, and having had the opportunity to work with many lawyers, both corporate and external counsel, I want to make a few observations on what I think business people expect from a lawyer.
Senior managers and even entrepreneurs, like the rest of us, have people they’re accountable to and serious goals to meet, so they need people on their teams who are committed to their (and their organizations’) success. To become trusted business advisers to such clients, lawyers have to demonstrate a willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done. They have to be accessible and responsive, delivering the goods when they say they will. Reliability is huge.
Lawyers are well trained in the art of butt-covering, while business people tend to be equally skilled at sniffing it out, even from a distance. It’s not a scent they typically find pleasant. So even though disclaimers and hedging one’s advice will be necessary to some degree, coming across like they have no skin in the game is not going to win lawyers the confidence of their business clients.
Competence in the law is a given, but something that can set lawyers apart is knowledge of — and keen appreciation for — the client’s business. I have run a number of professional service organizations and the biggest reason I’ve seen for clients becoming upset — apart from software glitches — is when responsibility for an account is passed from one individual to another in the service organization. Most clients dislike being in a state of relationship limbo, but positively hate having to re-explain their business situation to a new person, especially in the midst of a crisis.
At the other end of the spectrum, lawyers, like any service professionals, who really get their clients’ goals and business context, and whose advice reflects such deep understanding, will come to be viewed as highly valued members of the team.
I’m not sure this is particularly flattering, but many senior-level business people have something in common: very short attention spans. It probably comes from having to deal with a lot of issues with lots of pressure and not enough time. Or maybe those with an inherent dose of impatience for results are more apt to be promoted. It doesn’t really matter, because that impatience is just a fact of life, like it or not.
It’s not surprising, then, that most business people aren’t predisposed to enjoy the level of detail that lawyers are trained to appreciate. For such people, listening to experts share everything they know about a subject can be excruciating. A good friend of mine recalled being forced to listen to someone who didn’t quite get this and constantly saying under his breath during the entire presentation: “Summarize! Summarize! Summarize!” Some clients will be less nice and just cut you off, or worse yet, simply not invite you back for another dance.
So learning the art of being concise, of getting to the point before the paint dries is worthwhile. Bullet points are good. Some attribute their popularity to the low state of executive intellect. I won’t get defensive and just repeat: bullet points are good.
But there is something valued even more highly than brevity and that’s options. Business people love options, especially those involving stock. But they also love being presented with options when facing a business problem. Again, some might attribute that to an obsession with control, akin to the male need to hold the television remote and constantly change channels, even when it means moving away from a channel you really want to watch.
And again I will bypass psychological analysis because it doesn’t really matter; business people just tend to love options. So a short list of options, with pros and cons for each, and a bottom-line recommendation, will go down like momma’s pudding. See appendix for details. Save displaying your expertise for questions they want to ask.
Finally, most business people have less regard for suck-ups than advertised. In hierarchical organizational structures there are always some people around whose mission in life is to tell you what you want to hear. But they don’t tend to be viewed as very valuable to those who hold large responsibility and recognize they don’t have all the answers themselves.
While a measure of tact is almost always required, clients appreciate an adviser who is committed to telling the truth, especially when the truth isn’t particularly welcome. That may sound counterintuitive, but it’s the truth, at least for many business people. They respect someone who tells it like it is, who delivers bad news early — even when it involves the adviser’s own inability to deliver as expected (of course, that can’t happen very often: see ”commitment” above).
Obviously, not every corporate client is cut from the same cloth. Learning to treat clients as individuals is critical to a lawyer’s success. But in my experience, business people do tend to share some of the commonalities described above. All the relationship skills in the world aren’t worth very much if these basics are ignored.
A native of Vancouver, Mike Nienhuis is entering third-year law at the University of Victoria. Prior to law school, he spent about 15 years as an executive in the software industry. He has a BA in history and classics from the University of British Columbia and an MBA from Simon Fraser University.