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In my career, I have had the opportunity to be general counsel for a bank holding company, a large state medical center and a state bar association. Each entity was different in terms of its leadership and operating procedures.
However, there were certain common principles that guided outside counsel selection. Keep these mandates in mind as you position yourself for existing and potential clients:
- Make the client’s life easier. Simply stated, be a problem solver. Create legal solutions that provide the business with a path to success. Memos that recite legal issues and precedents are not what business people want or need. They want to know how to accommodate a business goal in a manner that is both legally sound and practical. Do that and you will become a trusted adviser.
- Get to the bottom line quickly. In my experience, most senior executives are “sensors,” meaning they have short attention spans and little patience for small talk in business discussions—they want to understand the bottom line as quickly as possible. Send short emails, and provide conclusions at the beginning of presentations and discussions before asking if the client wants to know how you arrived at that conclusion. Usually, my CEO thanked them for their advice and left the room, expecting me to stay and hear the “journey” to the conclusion.
- Follow your client’s communication style. At one of the companies where I worked, my CEO had an internal rule that he did not want to receive any memo longer than three pages. If you could not express your point in under three pages, you had a problem. It was a very good idea if you, as outside counsel, also knew his preferences! Bullet points, charts, summaries—all are very much appreciated by busy executives.
- Create a legal team that mirrors your client. Most firms that I visit have litigators on a certain floor, real estate lawyers on another floor, labor lawyers on yet another floor, etc. One law firm our bank used in Houston developed a plan to create a “team” across practice groups and kept our bank’s team together on one floor. The lawyers were much better apprised of what other practice groups were doing for us. It was efficient and effective, and our bankers loved it.
- Pay attention to diversity. In Texas, as in many other states, we worked in a multilingual, multicultural work environment. Our board of directors reflected that diversity, and they wanted our executive leadership to promote diversity in our relationships with outside providers. The board felt so strongly about that mandate that they decided to base 25% of the top executives’ annual bonuses on their successful promotion of diverse outside vendors, including outside counsel. Understanding that compensation structure was very important for our outside counsel.
- Develop a deep understanding of the company’s business. Competency in the practice of law is different from an understanding of how the law affects your client’s business enterprise. A deep understanding of your client’s business and industry is absolutely critical. Many times I have heard business executives at my companies say, “He’s a great lawyer, but he has no idea how we run our business here.” Read what your clients read, go to their conferences and talk to them about where they want their business to be in five years. The time and effort you put into those tasks will pay big dividends to your relationships.
- Be creative. On several occasions, I have been told by my business colleagues, “You lawyer types are smart, but you are some of the least creative people I have ever worked with!” I know that we learn about the use of legal precedent in law school and we tend to use contracts and legal documents again and again because they have stood the legal test of time. But the impression we sometimes give clients is that we are not innovative and that we are not looking for new and better ways to accomplish their business goals. Be conscious of this impression and look for opportunities to develop new paths to success.