Last year, I did a presentation at an associate retreat. The night before the retreat, my associate host and I met with Tyler, a former associate of mine who was now an in-house lawyer. While having a beer, Bart asked Tyler what he knows now that he wished he had known when he was a young associate. Tyler responded that the big thing he knows is that clients are never happy with litigators even when they get great results. Clients simply hate paying for litigation. I share this idea to put the story that follows in context.
Jonathan Cole is a litigation partner I coached a couple of years ago. Recently he sent me an email with an attached voicemail the managing partner of Jonathan’s firm had received from the in-house counsel of one of Jonathan’s largest clients. The general counsel did not even know the managing partner so he had clearly taken time to figure out who was the managing partner and then he called him. In the call, he said he wanted to pass on his extreme gratitude and thanks for the work Jonathan and his team had done over the last four years. The general counsel described Jonathan as the best lawyer working for his company and that he wished he could clone Jonathan to work on his company’s other cases across the country. The General Counsel never mentioned the results Jonathan had gotten for the company, but I am confident he would not have lavished praise if Jonathan had been getting bad results. I knew there had to be more, so I asked Jonathan to tell me his secret. Here is what he told me:
I began working for this client when one of my colleagues left the firm and left behind a small matter for me to wrap up. Since then, it has grown into my best client. It goes to show you never know how you will begin to develop your strongest client relationship.
I handled a few cases for the company. In 2004, however, they were faced with a dangerous case. They were represented by another lawyer and were about to be sanctioned for failing to participate in discovery in good faith. I was asked to take over the case. Eventually, we successfully defended the company in seven (7) motions for sanctions. The plaintiff’s baseless allegations and aggressive demeanor infuriated the client and they told me that I could take whatever actions were necessary to defend them. I knew we had a great opportunity to make a favorable impression and that we had to produce results. We were able to beat back the plaintiffs and eventually negotiate a minimal settlement. Since then, we have received every significant case they have in Tennessee.
After getting the favorable results, I worked even harder on client service and building the relationship. I made a point of always returning their calls as quickly as possible. I have the good fortune of sitting on a board that meets at least twice a year in the client’s headquarters city. Each time the board meets, I take an extra half day or evening to go by the company and see them and take them to lunch or dinner.
With the help of my assistant, we have tried to make our gifts for client contacts more meaningful. I learned from building a personal relationship with an in-house attorney that he is a big Johnny Cash fan. Being from Nashville made it easy for me to find and send him rare Johnny Cash CD’s and recordings.
Also, the paralegal is a key contact and essentially serves as the gatekeeper for much of the work. One time, she mentioned that she was taking a day off and spending the afternoon with some friends of hers at a boutique shop where she could design her own purse. During the holiday season I remembered that conversation. We contacted the shop and purchased a gift certificate for her to go and design another purse. Needless to say, she was thrilled.
In his voicemail message the General Counsel mentioned he appreciated the team that has worked with me on matters arising in other locations. That has been a key component of making this client happy to work with us. As you might imagine, at first I was challenged to delegate work out to my colleagues in other cities. Fortunately, I was able to select the lawyers in our other offices and we built a client team. Once again we have obtained the results the client desires, but it has been more than results. Each lawyer on my team knows the client and what they want from us and delivers it each and every day.
As we discussed, I was pleasantly surprised, the General Counsel made the effort to contact our managing partner. Since I have never discussed our managing partner, the General Counsel apparently went to our website and figured out who was the managing partner. While hearing the voicemail was both refreshing and rewarding, I realize that my client’s high level of satisfaction comes from the efforts of a number of individuals, including my assistant. This is a great client, and I really enjoy working with the company, and especially enjoy the relationship I have with my primary contacts. It’s a great relationship, and we have become very loyal to each other.
Jonathan seems to make two main points. First, after getting good results, take time to get to know your client contacts and build your relationship with them. As I used to say: “I want my friends to be my clients and my clients to be my friends.” Second, you can’t do it by yourself. You have to build a team of your colleagues and staff. Let each member of your team know they are important.