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Not long after I made the move from law firm practice to general counsel at a Texas financial institution, I observed that the senior executives at our holding company (the key decisionmakers) all had internal people within the bank who served as “coaches.”
These coaches were not the ultimate decisionmakers within the bank regarding projects or choosing outside law firms, but they were the influencers at the bank regarding those important decisions.
At my bank, the CEO was a man I will call Ken. Most afternoons at the end of the business day, I walked by Ken’s office and observed him talking to a man I will call Steve, who was the bank’s comptroller. The comptroller at our bank was a mid-level corporate executive who had been with the bank for roughly 25 years and had reported to Ken in several positions as Ken rose through the executive ranks of the holding company. I discovered one day (through Ken’s executive assistant) that Ken and Steve were not discussing Steve’s duties at the bank. Rather, Ken was asking for Steve’s advice and counsel regarding who he thought was the best person at our bank to assign to a major problem loan workout. He also wanted Steve’s thoughts on a particular law firm in Dallas for an unrelated matter.
I came to learn that Steve possessed the prized quality that Ken valued above all else: trusted judgement. Ken trusted Steve’s “tested and proven” judgement, and he relied on his counsel.
What does this mean for firm lawyers? They need to find out who the “Steves” are at their key client organizations and develop relationships with those essential influencers.
In my own legal department at the bank, I relied heavily on my assistant general counsel in each of our substantive legal areas. So those AGCs were excellent candidates to be coaches for outside law firms regarding how hiring decisions were being made and by whom. Advise your lawyers not to expend so much time and effort trying to get in front of the CEO or GC. Rather, try to make contact with their deputies in order to find out about their hiring processes and decisionmakers.
Knowing the decisionmaker (or decisionmakers) is invaluable intelligence for lawyers focused on business development. Likewise, encourage your lawyers of all professional ages to develop internal coaches at every level in the client organization. Future company leaders and decisionmakers will come from the ranks of those coaches. While building a relationship with the GC or CEO is valuable, don’t neglect the influencers found at all levels. You’ll find that those relationships often lead to new business much more than any others.