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December 27, 2005

With Clients, Especially New Clients, Err on the Side of Over-Communicating: Bombard, Copy and Confirm.

Rule Five: "Over-Communicate": Bombard, Copy and Confirm.This blog is indebted to Jay Foonberg for the inspiration for Rule 5--both "bombarding" and the idea of keeping clients continuously informed. Most our better thoughts about practice management since we started WAC/P in 2005 are influenced by Jay Foonberg. The notion of "bombarding" clients with paper and information does have obvious exceptions. For instance, you work with a GC who trusts you and wants you to leave her alone. She doesn't want you to copy her on every transmittal letter or e-mail. Fair enough. Just be 100% sure you know what she wants and doesn't want. But aside from that, this is a "can't miss" rule--and I am amazed that many good lawyers express surprise that my firm informs the client of everything at each step of the way, and copies our clients on everything.

Posted by JD Hull at 04:36 PM | Comments (0)

December 21, 2005

Fear and Loathing at the CLE Seminar? Getting an Earful from GCs.

Law.com's In-House Counsel section recently linked to a December 9 article from the Fulton County [Georgia] Daily Report entitled "Getting an Earful From GCs". Apparently--and this fascinates me--at a CLE seminar hosted by the Corporate Counsel Section of the Georgia state bar, some of the 100 GCs present asked outside law firm reps a bunch of "why-can't-you-get-it?" questions, including this one: Why don't outside lawyers understand the "business models and corporate culture of their clients?" Assuming that's true, i.e. we are not learning about clients from which we want repeat business, and at the risk of sounding didactic, I ask this one: How did so many of us get this bad? Whoa.

Posted by JD Hull at 10:39 AM | Comments (0)

Passion Plays

The subject of passion came up in two fine recent posts (here and here) I just noticed from Pat Lamb at In Search of Perfect Client Service and Tom Kane at The Legal Marketing Blog. Although I don't think I articulated it that well at the time, waning passion for what we do for clients is one of the things I tried to discuss in my first post for What About Clients? as I worried aloud whether we lawyers have lost our way. When lawyers can even talk about the importance of passion in our work, as Tom and Pat have done, we've come a long way, and shown some real leadership. And that's good for clients.

Posted by JD Hull at 07:48 AM | Comments (0)

December 19, 2005

Writing For Clients--Just Say It-Part 4 of 4-Final

Five years ago, Julie McGuire, a CPA and tax lawyer with whom I co-founded my firm in 1992, and I wrote a short but easy-to-read book entitled Hull McGuire Practice Guide* (*or how to become a productive associate or paralegal). We wanted to write down our best "how to practice law" tools--without which, in our view, your hard-won Order of the Coif or Law Review pedigree from, say, Hastings, Michigan or Yale will mean zilch and zero by the time you're 35. We apparently were successful in making the Practice Guide entertaining; people genuinely enjoy reading it. We revise it once a year. Just a couple of days ago, while reviewing the book for its annual update, I noticed that the Guide's section on "Writing" says it all for us, especially the final item, Point 8:

"1. Use short "people" words whenever possible. Like words a trial lawyer might use in addressing a jury. Use short sentences. Be precise but informal. Don't try to sound too much "like a lawyer": "whereupon", "hereinafter," "aforementioned", etc. No one is impressed or enlightened by these terms. Just say it.

2. Economize on words. Make every word count. Don't repeat yourself.

3. Be accurate and truthful--yet friendly, personable and optimistic in your writing style. Clients know they have issues and problems. There's no need to further agitate and depress them.

4. There are no perfect or sole answers to 95% of legal issues. So offer a few alternatives, take a position and even break new ground. You need a reasonable and logical position which makes good business sense and provides an affirmative recommendation, plan of action or conclusion. Whatever you do, do not only tell the client what it cannot do under the law. Tell our client what it can do, too.

5. Proofread, proofread, proofread. (NOTE: We have a written policy on proofreading you must actually sign.) Pretend that, for every typo you miss or grammatical error you make, you have to buy Dan Hull as many Heinekens as he could drink in one evening in his late twenties on a St. Patrick's Day in the most expensive Capitol Hill watering hole he and his friends could find.

6. Citations of sound authority should be used--but used sparingly. No string cites. Use the The [Harvard] Blue Book--A Uniform System of Citation or The University of Chicago Manual of Legal Citation ("The Maroon Book"). The citator is your friend--not your enemy.

7. When you write, get to the point up front and summarize it right away. And then expand on it. Don't make the client, other lawyer or judge guess about what your conclusion will be 5 pages away.

8. Take a stand. Tell the client what you think the client should do. Our client reps are business people or lawyers. A good way to make them mad is to not tell them what you think they should do. If your advice is sound, and followed, but not successful, don't sweat it. Business clients take calculated risks every day--and you can, too. Pretend here you are not the side-stepping risk-averse lawyer they may have trained you to be, and take responsibility for some of the failure. But do make a decision, recommend something concrete--and take the hit if you are wrong."

Posted by JD Hull at 11:34 AM | Comments (4)

December 16, 2005

Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point Holds Lessons in Both Marketing and Writing

Practicing law is demanding and difficult. Many lawyers I know either have no time to read, or are too burned out from reading to read outside the law. I have experienced both problems. Nonetheless, this holiday season I find myself giving clients, business people and other lawyers copies of The Tipping Point--How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell's 2000 bestseller. In a word, it's about "buzz"--how and why some ideas gather currency and speed and others don't. If you own or operate a business, and need to market either products or services, spend $10 for the paperback and find out whether you and your contacts are connectors, mavens or persuaders. You could build a marketing plan around this book.

If you are a lawyer, there's a second reason to read the book. Gladwell (a non-lawyer) sets an example for good writing. A relatively young man with already-elite journalism credentials, he could have still written a great book using intelligent but busier, Buckley-esque language and sentence structure. Instead, and with few deviations, Gladwell chose to write in simple prose which communicates. In writing this book, he was challenged--as lawyers are daily challenged--to identify and explain arcane or complicated ideas and then apply them to real life. But Gladwell accomplishes that with straightforward "people" language. This book is both exciting and a pleasure to read.

Posted by JD Hull at 10:39 AM | Comments (0)

December 14, 2005

$1,000 An Hour--Benjamin Civiletti Is Likely Worth It, But Clients Can Decide for Themselves

There were news reports yesterday that former U.S. Attorney General and Baltimore Venable partner Benjamin Civiletti, 70, is now charging $1,000 an hour for litigation and Sarbanes-Oxley investigations. Before lawyers, pundits and late-night comics weigh in on this with jealousy, outrage and humor--and they will--let me say this: the guy has had an exemplary career, and has enjoyed a first-rate reputation. Venable's clients and the market can decide the issue. He may very well be worth it.

In another sense, it's good for there to be wide ranges in hourly rates. Experienced clients, the sophisticated users of legal services, realize that lawyering is not "fungible," i.e., there are lawyers, and then there are lawyers. There are many, many degrees of quality between "just average" and "unquestionably great." I think recognition or acknowledgment of those gradations is a good thing.

Practicing law is rewarding--but demanding and difficult. Few of us, in my opinion, really get it right and keep it that way. More power to Ben Civiletti.

Posted by JD Hull at 06:34 PM | Comments (0)

Writing For Clients--Just Say It-Part 2...Can We Start With Courts?

Back to thinking about legal writing for clients de-mystified (December 9 post), I wonder if you just start with writing to courts. After all, lawyers (including judges) have a certain way of talking to each other which often (a) really isn't needed and just alienates the rest of the thinking world, and (b) even makes it think we are talking to ourselves dementedly and self-absorbedly.

For example, from the first line of an actual federal district court complaint:


COMES NOW, the plaintiff, Upstart Corporation, by and through its attorneys, Adams, Bones & Carson, LLC, brings this cause of action against GiantMart, Inc. for violations of the Lanham Act, and for its reasons, files with this Honorable Court the herein Complaint, the following of which is a statement of its averments and allegations:

Why not instead just:


Plaintiff, Upstart Corporation, states:

Well, is it just me?

Posted by JD Hull at 10:27 AM | Comments (0)

December 13, 2005

Legal Blogosphere Has Something For Everyone

Today it struck me how interesting and exciting it is to be part of the new--well, new to me--legal blogosphere when I ran into a blawg called Florida Lawyers Property Tax Appeals. (Try to say that 5 times real fast.) Now that is a specialty blawg.

I am far from a tax lawyer--in fact, for some reason many tax lawyers are jumpy and irritable around me--but FLPTA is easy to use and read, and that impressed me. I could even understand a lot of it. My firm does tax work, and I wondered if there were even more tax blogs closer to some of the tax practice we do. So I have an eye out. Maybe I can help our tax people.

Blawgs are coming from everywhere on all subjects. See, e.g. www.Blawg.org. And we are part of something: a fast-evolving comprehensive living library. Not bad.

Posted by JD Hull at 05:19 PM | Comments (0)

December 12, 2005

Rule Four: Deliver Legal Work That Change the Way Clients Think About Lawyers

Rule Four: Deliver Legal Work That Changes the Way Clients Think About Lawyers.

This rule, like Rule One, is not so intuitive. But it's the most challenging. The "under-promise but over-deliver" and "exceed customer expectations" notion of keeping good clients is a great idea. But I just don't think it works that well for lawyers. I think that clients, rightly or wrongly, and whether or not they are even aware of it, in fact have low expectations of lawyers in the first place. For two reasons:

A. Traditional Pervasive Distrust of Lawyers (General--Deserved & Undeserved)

There is a pervasive (let's face it, ancient) cynicism and suspicion about lawyers which even our most loyal and valued clients carry around with them. Some of it is unavoidable and not our fault. It's based on everything from literature, TV, movies and lawyer jokes to a genuine misunderstanding of what lawyers must do to perform well. It's deeply rooted in world culture.

B. Real Experiences-Based Distrust of Lawyers (Specific--Deserved)

But most of the distrust is our fault because either (1) our substantive professional services are merely "adequate" and/or delivered without passion or real caring--clients can sense that--or (2) we view clients almost as adversaries (they joke about us; we joke about them), which gets communicated to clients in every step of our work for them. See The First Post.

Let's not kid ourselves. We are talking about money here. Why try "to exceed client expectations" when the overall lawyer standard is perceived as low to mediocre? If your clients are all Fortune 500 stand-outs, and the GCs' seem to love you and your firm, is that because your service delivery is so good--or because other firms they use are so "bad" or lackluster on service? Why have a low standard, or one that merely makes you look incrementally more responsive and more on top of things than the boutique on the next floor up? Why not overhaul and re-create the whole game?

If you read the better writers on services, like Harry Beckwith in Selling The Invisible, you pick up on this simple idea: Rather than "under-promise/over-deliver", which is essentially job specific, why not change the way people think of lawyers generally and what they can expect from them generally? Get good clients--those clients you like and want--to keep coming back to you by communicating in all aspects of your work that you care deeply about your lawyering for them, you want to serve their interests on an ongoing basis and that it's a privilege to be their lawyer. Show them you fit no lawyer mold.

Oh, yeah. One catch--and the hardest part: it's got to be true.

Posted by JD Hull at 09:06 AM | Comments (0)

December 10, 2005

Hunting Bigger Game--Good Boutiques Can Catch and Keep Fortune 500 Clients--Redux

Regularly I'm reading Tom Kane's www.legalmarketingblog.com, a quality blog, and I'm adding it to the list of Blawgs I Read. One of my favorite observations is in the title of one of Tom's recent posts, "General Counsel Do Hire Small Firms". It seems to me that, increasingly (see my November 21 post), general counsel appear to be hiring smaller boutique firms.

Size matters, but less and less. To attract and hold good clients--including Fortune 500 customers--I think you need 5 things: quality lawyers who can work pretty much anywhere; a genuinely client-focused (not the public relations b.s. kind--but the real thing) boutique of those lawyers; planning; hustle; and the right technology.

What about price? I know there's lots of disagreement on this one, but I do not think price is or needs to be a factor in getting and keeping major clients. In short, law boutiques don't need to reduce rates to lure clients away from large firms.

So keep your BigLaw rates. Compete on service. Make some money.

Posted by JD Hull at 03:44 PM | Comments (0)

December 09, 2005

Writing For Clients--Just Say It-Part 1

Writing for clients, or taking legal jargon and legal-ese out of client documents, is an important topic for me and my firm. Tom Welshonce, an associate in Pittsburgh and contributor to this blog, and I hope to devote time to the subject over the next few weeks. My experience is that the vast majority of clients--from individuals to sophisticated in-house counsel--don't want to read lengthy, convoluted lawyer prose in the documents they read, and that they especially don't want to see this stuff in communications to them.

I think they want you to “just say it.” Clients appreciate it and will even favorably comment when you do that. Just saying it means three things: (1) get to the point up front in the communication (e.g. in a letter, in the first sentence, if possible) regardless of its length, (2) explain what you mean step by step, with citation of any authorities, and (3) above all, use "people" words which communicate with both precision and clarity. Next week: some examples.

Posted by JD Hull at 02:30 PM | Comments (0)

December 07, 2005

The Client's "Professionalism" Rules For Litigation

1. We, your client, come first. Be nice, be professional--but if in doubt, in litigation, use the procedural rules. If you feel you know the lawyers you are dealing with, we will follow your advice and instincts. If you are in doubt about the opposing lawyers, or if it might compromise us to deviate from the formal procedural rules, please stay close to those rules. Frankly, we have been in business long enough to know that practitioners in your city are pretty much like lawyers in New York City, Sioux City or anywhere else. We know that some lawyers at times transform zeal, advocacy and trying to serve the client into over-lawyering, discovery abuse and outright dishonesty. On rare occasions, we have even seen opposing counsel hide a document, or get a witness to lie. It happens. So if you are unclear about how to respond to such tactics, use the rules.

2. If you can develop an amicable working relationship with opposing counsel, please do so. If you can do this, it will save us time, money and goodwill. This is also true of your relationship with government attorneys who represent administrative agencies in regulatory matters.

3. Please move this matter along. At first, please use the deadlines in the procedural rules. If someone asks you for a two-week extension in discovery, and you believe all he or she needs is an extra week to produce the information or witness requested, tell opposing counsel that a week is enough time. (We will consider filing a motion to compel production.) We have an interest in resolving this matter without more delays.

4. Be timely and substantive; practice "clean hands." Try to provide timely and good responses to opposing counsel's discovery requests and other deadlines. Do this whether or not opposing counsel does it.

5. If you have, or would like to have, a personal relationship with opposing counsel, that's fine, but don't let the relationship hurt us--the client. We don't care as much as you do about your maintaining or developing collegiality with other lawyers in your jurisdiction; in fact, we could not care less.

6. If opposing counsel shows animosity toward you for following the procedural rules and keeping things moving, that is tough. We hired you to represent us. We would like you to get this done. As your client, we seldom think that aggressiveness and persistence are unprofessional.

7. Conduct your discussions with opposing counsel as if we were listening. No, this does not mean we want you to posture, or fight tooth-and-nail over every point. However, if it's in our interest to reduce a request for an extension of time from 45 days to 15 days, please do so. If we are the plaintiff in commercial litigation, we would like to secure our remedies as soon as possible. When we are the defendant, we would like you to obtain information about the plaintiff's case as soon as you can, determine our exposure and resolve it.

8. If you have followed these rules and opposing counsel starts making noises about professionalism and courtesy, please refer to Rule No. 1. Occasionally, a lawyer may attempt to turn professionalism into a sword. This is nonsense. If you have followed the rules, even aggressively, and opposing counsel whines hardball tactics, you are doing a good job for us. Don't let your adversary turn your sticking to the rules on our behalf into a red herring. We come first.

Posted by JD Hull at 06:01 PM | Comments (0)

December 02, 2005

Do Blogs "Work"?--Redux

So maybe blogs do "work." Another post from The Practice helps answer my question.

Posted by JD Hull at 10:47 AM | Comments (0)

December 01, 2005

Real Professionalism Focuses On Clients

Zeal. Our professional rules in America say we should have this when we advance matters on behalf of a client. What does zeal mean? Enthusiastic and diligent--yes. Aggressive--probably yes. Crazy--no. Perfect--usually not. Manipulative, underhanded--no, never. I have thought for a long time that--despite the good sense of discouraging "Rambo"-type tactics in litigation and deal-making--lawyer "clubbiness" can compromise clients. I cherish and often admire my lawyer friends. But even high-end potential clients I meet complain of being in effect "mere equipment in elaborate games played by lawyers." Want specifics on what I mean? A few months ago, I wrote Professionalism Revisted: What About The Client?, which appeared in a few publications. This is my favorite "What About Clients?" topic.

Real professionalism focuses on clients. It is a corollary of Rule Two: The Client is the Main Event in the November 28 post of this blawg.

Posted by JD Hull at 08:24 AM | Comments (0)