For lawyers in private practice, regularly bringing in new clients and keeping current ones happy is critical to survival. When we think of business development, we think of acquiring and maintaining clients, that is, individuals from outside of the firm that bring us work. External business development is important at all stages of a legal career - and I will write about it next month - but what about our “clients” within the firm? What about internal business development?
Think about it for a minute. Where is your work coming from? If you’re like me, I’m fortunate enough to work for senior lawyers who bring in so much work they can’t possibly do it all themselves. Depending on the complexity of the file, those lawyers will assign it to an associate or create a team of partners and associates. In a way, these senior lawyers are my clients, too. Early in my summer student days, a seasoned lawyer passed on this piece of invaluable advice: treat the lawyers you’re working for like clients.
How can you do this?
Make your client feel important
All clients want to feel as though their work is high-priority and important to you. Listen carefully to instructions when you’re being given an assignment, and try not to turn work down unless you’re truly at capacity. If an external client really needed your help, you’d be unlikely to say you’re too busy, right?
If it’s genuine, get excited about the assignment! I was sent to suburban Newmarket, Ont. on an urgent motion with about 16-hours notice last month. Not an ideal situation, but I was totally grateful for the opportunity and thanked the assigning lawyer for trusting me with it. Clients like to feel that you appreciate their business and that their work is a high priority for you; supervising lawyers are no different.
Keep your client up to date
Clients also want to be updated regularly on the progress of their file. As new lawyers, we can do this by “circling back” with assigning lawyers at regular intervals. This is especially so if you’re at all concerned about meeting a deadline. A simple e-mail can do the trick:
“Hi Jeff. Just checking in to let you know I’ve completed an outline of the statement of defence and counterclaim on the Doe file. I see the client hasn’t responded to your e-mail yet regarding the damages calculation. Would you like me to follow up?”
This type of communication reminds the lawyer that: a) he assigned you work; b) you’re on track in terms of completion; and c) you’re proactive and thinking about next steps on the file. Hopefully, I’m crossing items off of his to-do list and building my credibility at the same time.
Make ’em look good
This is a no-brainer. As one of my favourite mentors always says, law is a team sport. At this stage of our careers, we play a supporting role, so we should do our best to make the quarterback look his or her best.
I’ve been teased by my colleagues about the fact that I always bring an “emergency kit” to court and mediations filled with extra stationery, pens, etc. I’m over it; it’s paid off so many times that I’ll accept the chirping.
I also bring extra copies of all draft orders and any key documents in the proceeding in case someone needs a spare. I want to know the file inside and out so that I can answer any questions the busy supervising lawyer might have, and I want to show the decision-maker and opposing counsel that our team is totally prepared for battle (even if, in reality, the supervising lawyer is somewhat removed from the details).
Make your client’s job easier
When preparing materials for a supervising lawyer, I try to take some time to think about presentation. Early in my first year, I reviewed a large volume of documents and created an executive summary for a partner. The partner totally restructured my summary; it looked entirely different and 100-per-cent better. I had set it up in a way that made sense to me, someone familiar with the volumes of material.To a new reader, the structure I had chosen was confusing. Now, I try to consider how to make all of my work-product logical and user-friendly (like the headings in this article, for instance).
Making a lawyer’s job easier can also include prepping their materials for the next day, summarizing key documents or file status for a client call, organizing material for a court appearance, etc. If the day runs more smoothly because of you, that’s a surefire way to get invited to tag along more often.
Manage your client’s expectations
Clients want to feel their expectations are being met. One of the best ways to do this is to manage those expectations early on. Don’t promise a comprehensive research memo on director-and-officer liability in U.S. law with a three-day turnaround time. In my experience, under-promising and over-delivering goes a long way in building a good rapport.
Maintain the client relationship
And, just as you wouldn’t want to lose touch with important external clients, the same applies to your internal ones. Check in with the lawyers that assign you work to see if they have any interesting new files they need help with. Let them know in advance if you’re going to be away so there’s no “gap in service” during your absence. Anticipate where a file might be headed, and ask if you can go ahead and look after that next step for him or her. It will be appreciated and noticed.
From what I can tell, the best ways to build a name in this business is to get regular exposure and do high-quality work. In order to get these opportunities within a firm, treat your superiors as clients and give them the same high-end service you would give a paying client. The more you deliver excellent work, the more work you’ll get; the more work you get, the more exposure outside of the firm you’re likely to encounter.
Stay tuned next month for some strategies for building external business from senior lawyers in the field.