When I started coaching lawyers, I sent questions to some of my best construction industry clients and asked for their feedback. Here are questions and the answers I received from a company executive with whom I worked extensively during my legal career.
- What homework would you expect the lawyer to have done on the companies, the matter you will be meeting about and you personally?
I would expect he would have done a little research on the company and little to none on me. I would expect that he would be more well-versed on the matter, the facts of the matter and have done some relevant law research.
- They say that in the first minute or two, people decide whether they can trust someone and whether they connect and have rapport with someone. How have outside lawyers done that well with you? How about those who have not done so well?
I think the common characteristic among lawyers who have done that well is that they were good listeners. They wanted to hear and understand the facts before expressing opinions. The other characteristic is they were honest, even if it meant telling me things I didn’t necessarily enjoy hearing.
- Lawyers should ask good questions in an initial meeting and listen rather than trying to sell themselves or their firm, what are good examples of questions you have been asked in an initial meeting?
I think questions about my expectation of an outcome were the best. They led to some thoughtful consideration about the outcome I was expecting and what the alternative outcomes might be and how that might effect immediate decisions and strategies.
- What would you like to hear from a lawyer on how he or she and his or her firm will handle a matter?
I think track record of the firm and the individuals is the most important measure of how they might perform in the future. I want to hear about past successes and failures. Not doing the wrong thing can be as smart as doing the right thing. I call that disaster avoidance.
- What are examples of extraordinary service from an outside lawyer? Just average service?
On a builders risk insurance claim, we retained an LA firm with an extraordinary track record in litigation against insurance firms, working on a 33% contingent fee basis. The firm assigned a lawyer to the case. The facts and issues were very complex, the loss involved flood inundation and collapse of a tunnel during the course of construction. The firm lawyer did an extraordinary job of educating himself, not just as to the facts of the issue but also became exceptionally well versed in all of the geotechnical and hydrological engineering theories of the collapse.
His dedication to learning made him very effective during deposition of the insurance company experts. He was a hard worker. He studied and researched and challenged our own experts. His knowledge impressed our own experts. I think his preparation was a big factor in the insurer settling the claim prior to going to trial. His knowledge reinforced my confidence in our case, and led us to a great settlement.
Any time I have gotten into a situation where the legal service was average, I tried to end it quickly- either by settling with the opponent or getting new counsel.
- Most lawyers and law firms are alike these days. In your eyes how can a lawyer of firm distinguish himself or itself from others in a positive way?
They need to be hard workers. If I get the feeling that the firm or the lawyer isn’t going to work as hard as me, I will be looking for the exit. They need to be honest, brutally honest if need be.
- What are good examples of where you feel you worked like a team with outside counsel?
The best example I have is the litigation against the Corps of Engineers. Larry, Ted and you and I worked like a team. We instinctively understood our own strengths and weaknesses and we led or supported as the dynamics of the battle unfolded.
- Suppose a matter has been handled well, other than thanking you for the opportunity, what would be a good way for the lawyer to follow up?
I have found that when people come together as a team to battle some adversity and they do it well there are bonds that develop. The lawyer should recognize and respect those bonds. Casual periodic communication is a great way to maintain them.
- What has changed about the relationships you have with outside counsel since you started?
The relationships have been transformed form being purely professional to professional and personal. I think that transition is a natural outcome of the bonds that develop in the common effort to overcome adversity. There is an old Russian saying, probably came out of the salt mines in Siberia -“You never really know a man until you’ve packed salt with him.”
Facing adversity together gives us remarkable insight into each others character.
- What is the one thing you would tell a young partner in a firm that you think would make their clients “raving fans?”
Work hard and be honest. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
It’s not flashy and you probably have to do it over and over and over again before people will notice, but I think it leads to professional success and personal satisfaction.
Think about the alternative, if you have a client that doesn’t appreciate hard work and honesty, you probably don’t want that client.