Biglaw associates should engage more with customers
Biglaw’s firms generally have a regulated way of doing business. Associates are often responsible for managing clients and interacting with them to gain information relevant to representation. The partners then divide parts of the representation into projects and appoint associates to complete the work. Of course, some firms use different methods to divide the work, and lawyers or senior partners may also be involved in this process, but more experienced lawyers are usually almost exclusively involved in connecting with clients of the better firms. However, more Biglaw stores should encourage associates to communicate directly with customers in order to improve representation and realize other benefits.
When I was associated with Biglaw, I never interacted with clients unless we were working as volunteers. I relied on partners to tell me the facts, provide me with assignments, and there was definitely a disconnect between the clients and me. Of course, Biglaw partners might not trust associates enough to interact with customers, especially when customers might have questions that associates would have a hard time answering. In addition, associates often have strong relationships with clients that associates do not since they have not practiced for a long time. If we’re honest, seasoned lawyers also might not want multiple lawyers to interact with their clients lest the client end up transferring their work to the other lawyer.
When I worked in smaller law firms, it was very common for me to have contact with clients. In these stores, the junior lawyers had a lot more autonomy over their cases because we all had to manage a large number of cases and the partners could not manage all the communications with the clients. When I first started interacting with small business customers, I felt at a disadvantage because I had no experience dealing with larger store customers. I didn’t have a chance beforehand to develop a “bedside manner” and a calm way of speaking with clients, which is important because clients often come to lawyers for emotional issues. For months it seemed awkward to pick up the phone and talk to clients because I had never had the opportunity to hone my customer service skills when it came to clients when I was worked in a large company.
However, there are many advantages to having associates interact directly with customers. Perhaps more importantly, it can help associates get accurate information about a deal. In Biglaw, in cases where associates do not interact with customers, it is usually up to the partner to convey information about a case. However, just like in the “phone” game, when you transmit information to several people, the message often gets lost. Indeed, sometimes at Biglaw I would make assumptions about a client’s situation that may or may not be correct because I did not want to disturb the partner to go to the client to get the information. If clients interacted directly with associates, there would be a direct line of communication that could ensure that more specific information was reflected in the work produced by a lawyer.
Another benefit of getting associates to interact more with clients is that it is solid training that will come in handy for associates later in their careers. Law firms invest a great deal of time and resources in their associates, and it is hoped that many associates will stay with the firm for a long time and make a career in a store. If associates are promoted and become advisors or partners, they will likely need to interact with clients frequently. Some firms begin to involve associates by talking to clients as they progress in their careers so that they are ready for the next step in their advancement within a firm.
However, associates can be trained even better if they start interacting with customers earlier. This way associates can get used to the intake and interaction process that comes with connecting with clients for more years and can be even better at it if promoted. The manner and bedside aura required to successfully treat customers takes time to learn, and Biglaw stores should start the learning process sooner.
Another major benefit of having Biglaw associates interacting with clients earlier is that many clients might appreciate seeing junior lawyers working on an account. Many clients are delighted to see the young blood that goes to their work, and clients often love to see firms provide advancement opportunities for junior lawyers. Indeed, earlier in my career, when I interacted with in-house professionals, these lawyers loved to tell me about their professional experiences and give advice to a junior lawyer. This interaction can help build relationships with clients and ensure clients see all of the lawyers doing their work.
All in all, while some Biglaw firms may be reluctant to let junior lawyers interact with clients, such interaction can also have a number of benefits. Not only is interaction with the client important for professional development, it can also strengthen relationships with the client.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website explaining how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan by email at [email protected]