A recent article in The American Lawyer shares research by UK-based research firm Acritas about the main reasons that clients fire outside counsel. Major clients cited cost (21%), bad advice or lack of expertise (18%), project completion (16%), poor service (15%), and loss of a key partner (11%) as primary factors in their decisions. Given the additional complexities of international practice, how do you reduce the chances that any of these will happen to you?
As noted above, high cost was the primary reason that corporate counsel fired outside firms. In the international arena, the Magic Circle and other large global firms are known for charging some of the highest hourly rates around. One way to combat high hourly rates is, of course, to adopt alternative billing structures that focus on value rather than hourly billing. For example, the In-House ACCess blog describes how footwear company Wolverine Worldwide and outside counsel Seyfarth Shaw are negotiating to work out a value-based relationship, and the metrics being proposed by each side. For example, in-house counsel proposed a “Trademark Risk Rate” which included total dollars spent on trademark defense divided by the number of trademarks defended. Outside counsel, however, proposed a different set of metrics including Overall Satisfaction and Timeliness of Communication. As the post notes, the parties are in the midst of working out the metrics. However, their efforts show a willingness to create alternative fee structures up front.
As noted in the first paragraph, poor service is another common reason that in-house counsel fire outside firms. However, sometimes differences in cultural expectations can create an unintended impression of “poor service”. Do you know each client’s cultural expectations–and are you meeting them? For example, what are your client’s expectations about work product timing? Is their sense of time fluid, or do they expect advance warning and justification of any schedule changes? Are your clients willing to work directly with lower-level attorneys or do they expect to interface with senior partners to feel that they are receiving good service? (See also Effective Cross-cultural Lawyering in this blog.)
As the Acritas study notes, clients also leave when a firm lacks the right kind of expertise or delivers bad legal advice. Client-attorney cultural misunderstandings, as well as separation by time zones and distance, increase the chance that clients’ expectations won’t be fully met. So, when dealing with a potential client, spend extra time clarifying what kind of legal expertise they are seeking and honestly assess whether you can match it. If you can’t meet their needs, then refer the matter to another trusted lawyer. It is far better for clients to get the legal expertise that they desire rather than to damage your brand by not meeting expectations.
Finally, plan ahead for transitions. When a client’s project ends or the client’s primary lawyer contact leaves your firm, be ready to maintain and nourish the client relationship. This can take extra effort across the miles, but try to maintain open lines of communication with all former clients. Sending articles of interest with handwritten notes is an easy but personal way to show continued interest. Of course, personal visits anytime that you are in the client’s city help to maintain a warm relationship, too.
Implementing these tips will help decrease the chances that you will get fired, despite distance across the miles and time zones.
The Five Habits for Cross Cultural Lawyering by Sue Bryant and Jean Koh Peters discusses how cross-cultural misunderstandings can arise between lawyers and clients. The result? Lawyers pursue strategies inconsistent with their clients’ values. Lawyers can improve their cross-cultural effectiveness (and client communication) by learning “culture-specific” knowledge when dealing with clients from a particular culture, and “culture-general” knowledge when dealing with clients from a broad variety of cultures.
This analysis is a good reminder–even for seasoned international lawyers–of just how important it is to develop cross-cultural competence.
When a Massachusetts neurosurgeon was found liable for discriminatory comments about the gender and ethnic origin of a female surgeon, The Massachusetts Medical Law Report interviewed me about Tips for Avoiding Communication Problems. Although the surgeon’s conduct was clearly offensive, it’s possible that he did not realize just how inappropriate his comments sounded.
As I mentioned in the article, the first step in such a situation is to make the professional aware about how he/she comes across. A person’s communication style is learned over time–and engrained. A professional may not realize that his/her communication style offends other people.
Before you fly abroad on business–whether to negotiate a deal or interview for a new job–polish your cross-cultural communication skills. For a quick cultural cross-check, look at the new edition Frank Acuff’s How to Negotiate Anything with Anyone Anywhere around the World. Apart from negotiating tips, the book gives a helpful, practical overview by country of communication styles, cultural sensitivities, table manners, gender issues and the like. It is an invaluable book for professionals that work with people from a broad variety of cultures.
When speaking publicly, how do you make sure to impact your audience with interesting, international insights?
The Professional Convention Management Association hired me to speak yesterday at its annual convention in New Orleans. As usual, my talk was highly interactive and practical, covering client development issues in places as disparate as Buenos Aires, Boston and Beijing. Even though slated for the end of the day, the audience stayed engaged and the 1 1/2 hour program seemed to fly by… Why? Something felt different about this program…
Well, the audience actively participated–REALLY participated–and shared lots off interesting, international insights. Some audience members shared insights gleaned during their work experience in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia.Â Others gave their perspectives as natives of Holland, Mexico, China or Turkey.
This highly interactive session gave me, as a speaker, an international insight: It really helps to make programs as interactive as possible–ESPECIALLY when discussing an international topic. The world may be flat, but it’s still big. In our global economy, select audience members will have interesting, international experiences that are different than the speaker’s–and sharing those benefits everyone. It also makes the audience feel really involved, as if the entire room is engaging in an interesting, international discussion.
So, whether you are speaking to prospective clients at an industry conference, or to fellow lawyers at a CLE program, solicit and encourage interactivity–and especially international insights– from the audience.