Become Your Foreign Clients’ Favorite Lawyer
American lawyers can please, and cultivate, clients and co-counsel abroad
By Janet Moore
Certain generalizations (to which there are always individual exceptions) can be made about American values and business behavior. As an American lawyer, you probably incorporate, consciously or unconsciously, some of these values into your behavior. These values act like œlenses, coloring your world view and influencing your reactions.
Understanding how your American values shape your perspective and how foreign clients and colleagues’ values shape theirs will help you immeasurably in your international practice. You will be able to adjust your behavior accordingly and thereby become more effective as a lawyer. The more effective that you are, the more that your clients will appreciate and enjoy working with you. Several former colleagues and I presented a panel discussion on this topic at a recent American Bar Association Section of International Law conference in Brussels. This article summarizes our discussion and offers related client development tips.
Understand National Differences
As an American lawyer, you are probably aware of cultural differences between you and your foreign clients, colleagues and co-counsel. Whether and how you perceive these differences really depends on your own cultural perspective, as illustrated by these examples:
- GROUP DYNAMICS: Japanese professionals generally value harmony and cohesion within their group; junior team members usually do not openly contradict more senior team members. In contrast, American team members often voice their own opinions openly during meetings, and even the most junior person may inject his/her own contrary perspective. As a result, many Japanese businesspersons perceive Americans’ behavior as somewhat undisciplined, inharmonious and disrespectful of authority.
Client development tip: When working with Japanese clients and co-counsel, be sure to treat team members with additional respect. Try not to interrupt other team members and use respectful language.
- RELATIONSHIPS: Mexican lawyers strongly value relationships, and frequently develop close personal relationships with prospective colleagues and clients before entering into professional ones. In contrast, Americans frequently approach prospective clients whom they barely know; to Americans, having a personal relationship is not a necessary precursor to a business relationship. As a result, many Mexican clients find Americans’ style of client development too aggressive and fast-paced.
Client development tip: When working with Mexican clients and co-counsel, focus on building strong personal relationships. Resist the temptation to ask for their business too quickly, and take the time to cultivate a relationship first.
- COMMUNICATION STYLE: Vietnamese professionals tend to speak more quietly than Americans, and often consider American professionals too loud and boisterous. In contrast, Russian businessmen often speak more loudly and boisterously than Americans.
Client development tip: Pay attention to the volume (as well as pace and inflection) of your clients’ speech and match it.
Become Aware Of Key American Values
American values shape American behavior. Some of the most important values held by most Americans are:
- CAPITALISM: Most Americans prize capitalism and free enterprise. They not only tend to distrust governmental intervention but any other intrusion into the free marketplace. Many Americans also assume that the rest of the world recognizes capitalism as the best system for business, and that most business problems can be solved creatively within the law. However, many cultures especially those without a capitalist tradition do not always approach legal and business problems the same way. During the panel discussion in Brussels, Holly Nielsen, Partner and General Counsel of Moscow-based Baring Vostok Capital Partners, discussed this issue at length. As an American lawyer who has lived and worked in Russia for over a decade, she has seen how differently Russian and American lawyers approach legal issues based on their diverse training and orientations. These diverse approaches can create frustration on both sides.
Client development tip: When you work with co-counsel from a former (or current) communist or socialist regime, you may need to help the other lawyer look for solutions to legal issues. Many such lawyers were taught legal theory but not encouraged to solve legal problems creatively within a legal framework. You may need to help your co-counsel do so in order to solve your client’s problems and achieve your client’s objectives.
- OPTIMISM: As a country without aristocracy, Americans generally prize the œself made man or woman, and believe that anyone who works hard enough can succeed regardless of pedigree. In contrast, countries with a tradition of aristocracy often place a higher value on a professionals lineage and credentials.
Client development tip: Anticipate that your foreign clients and co-counsel may want to know about your credentials and even family lineage. Having letters of introduction from mutual and respected connections will facilitate relationships.
- INDEPENDENCE: Americans are proud of their independent spirit and love to toot their own horn. They tend to speak up, giving voice to their own point of view and individual accomplishments. Speakers from collectivist or group cultures emphasize group rather than individual achievement.
Client development tip: Watch how you describe your own accomplishments lest it seem like bragging. If you are speaking to a group of prospective Asian clients, for example, focus on the achievements of your firm or practice group rather than your own.
- TIME IS MONEY: Most Americans highly value work. They often think nothing about asking new acquaintances, What do you do for a living? They discuss business (even at social functions), and expect meetings to get down to business quickly without much personal small talk. Americans tend to set aggressive deadlines, and want projects completed quickly so that they can get onto the next one. (Note: This focus on work is changing as the new generation of American workers emphasizes quality of life.) Brussels panel member Wayne Gardner, Tax Counsel with Exxon Mobil Petroleum & Chemical who has worked all over the globe as an international tax lawyer, discussed this issue during the panel presentation. He encouraged American lawyers to be realistic about deadlines, and to clarify with their clients and co-counsel, particularly across cultures, what is expected by what date. Too often, foreign co-counsel agree to an Americans deadline, mistakenly expecting the deadline to be flexible; this can cause serious misunderstanding and disappointment.
Client development tip: When you are dealing with foreign co-counsel, be very clear about actual (not artificial) time deadlines. Check their progress regularly to avoid unwanted surprises.
- US-CENTRIC: Many Americans who don’t work and travel internationally are relatively unenlightened about the rest of the world.
Client development tip: Being an internationally-savvy American lawyer gives you the opportunity to impress clients, colleagues and co-counsel alike. You are perfectly poised to translate cultural differences between your clients and co-counsel by smoothing out differences, creating realistic expectations, and encouraging all parties to meet desired time frames. Another Brussels panel member, Steven Plehn, shared his experiences with the audience. As an American lawyer who now practices as a Spanish-qualified lawyer in Madrid, his cultural savvy has benefited his thriving transnational practice. Knowing how to manage expectations across cultures has significantly helped his effectiveness as an international practitioner.
Client development tip: Learn to translate cultural differences for your clients, managing expectations on both sides.
Nurture Professional Business Relationships
Americans generally favor friendly and informal business relationships.
- CASUAL NETWORKING: American professionals often cultivate lots of casual business connections. This is because Americans tend to do business based on the other person’s business qualifications rather than on personal relationships.
Client development tip: Anticipate being asked about your credentials, background and personal and family ties; these may be more important in some cultures than your individual achievements and qualifications.
- FRIENDLINESS: Americans are generally friendly. Sometimes their friendliness and directness can seem inappropriate to people from more reserved cultures. Other times, Americans’ friendliness can seem superficial when casual, open conversations do not lead to substantial friendships. Americans often ask How are you? without meaning to inquire deeply into someone’s health, or say Let’s get together sometime! without meaning to extend a social invitation. These casual pleasantries can be confusing and misleading to non-Americans.
Client development tip: Be conscious that your casual behavior and comments may create expectations in people from other cultures.
- WOMEN IN THE WORKPLACE: Americans emphasize gender neutral behavior, and generally expect women to be treated the same as men in the workplace.
Client development tip: Be aware of gender differences across cultures. Saudi Arabia imposes legal restrictions on women, for example, prohibiting them from driving. If you are a female lawyer, or if you are planning to send one of your female attorneys abroad, know the restrictions before you go. This does not mean that women attorneys should not be given the same international work opportunities as males. However, you must be prepared to deal with limitations that arise.
American Business Behavior Doesn’t Always Translate Overseas
Here are a few specific rules:
- GIFTS: Americans generally do not exchange gifts in a business context. If you are invited to someone’s home, it is appropriate to bring a small gift, such as flowers. Otherwise, business gifts may be given to commemorate closing of a transaction or other special occasion, but are otherwise not expected.
Client development tip: Gift giving is extremely important in other cultures. In Asia, for example, gift giving plays an important symbolic and ceremonial role even in a business context. Do some country-specific research before meeting with non-American clients or colleagues to know whether to give and how to accept properly business gifts. Then, determine which gifts would be most appropriate. For example, I recently helped an east coast law firm to devise gifts for prospective Chinese clients’ gifts that incorporated the colors and numbers that Chinese consider auspicious.
- PUNCTUALITY: Americans tend to be rather punctual, arriving within fifteen minutes after (but not before) a meeting’s scheduled time. By the same token, they tend to be frustrated by counterparts who arrive extremely late.
Client development tip: Many cultures, including most Arab, African and Latin American cultures, treat time as more fluid than in American culture. Expect delays: do not get frustrated by them, take them personally, or assume that such tardiness is a sign of disrespect or lack of interest.
- DIRECT COMMUNICATION: Americans value getting to the point. They speak in direct, assertive language without many pleasantries. This can seem impolite and even confrontational to non-Americans.
Client development tip: Know what to expect and communicate accordingly. Feel free to communicate directly with other direct communicators, like the Germans and Dutch. However, soften your language when speaking to, for example, Indonesian clients or counsel. When dealing with professionals from indirect cultures, it is particularly critical to interpret the other side’s behavior. Try to read between the lines, and if necessary, ask for help from a translator or bi-cultural colleague in understanding culture clues.
- FAST PACE: Americans usually like fast-paced negotiations and transactions. They want business wrapped up quickly so that they can tackle the next project. This haste strikes many non-Americans as needless and perhaps even absurd.
Client development tip: Help your American clients to understand that their preoccupation with speed for speed’s sake can actually hurt them at the negotiating table. Many other cultures negotiate at a more leisurely pace. According to one Chinese businessman, prolonging negotiations always won him additional concessions from his impatient American counterparts.
American lawyers are a unique breed: assertive, independent and forthright. However, many non-American clients, colleagues and co-counsel find it challenging to work with their American lawyers. To succeed at an international law practice, and to become your foreign client’s favorite American lawyer, you may need to adapt your work habits, professional behavior and communication style to capture and keep more clients abroad. After all, it would be nice to become your foreign client’s favorite American lawyer, wouldn’t it?
Global Rainmaking Tips: Pointers on Developing Clients Abroad
Many lawyers in North America take a U.S.-centric view of current events, economics, business trends, client needs and even business development strategies in part because the United States was the key financial center of the world economy for so many years. As the writer Ana Nin said, We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are. However, just as the economy has increasingly globalized, so do lawyers need to globalize their perspectives.
For starters, to court international clients and prospects, you need to understand global business from their perspective. Many non-U.S. news outlets like the BBC and the Economist do a better job of reporting on global business developments than American news sources do. You can also stay abreast of international legal trends by joining groups like the International Bar Association and the ABA Section of International Law, reading their publications and list serve posts, and attending their conferences and teleclasses.
You must also know enough about the principles of non-common law legal systems (such as civil law and shariah), and various areas of the law, to be able to spot relevant issues. This task can seem overwhelming. However, the goal is not to become an expert in a variety of fields or legal systems the goal is to be able to spot legal issues, and then when needed call in specialists, such as foreign counsel. Of course, the more you work on matters with international aspects, the more real-life insight you will gain into foreign legal issues.
Lastly, having a general interest in other cultures really enhances global rainmaking. Prospective clients can sense whether a lawyer is genuinely interested in them and their culture or is just trying to get the economic benefit of their new business.
Use Cross-Cultural Acumen to Customize
Whether it’s North American lawyers going global or non-North American lawyers entering U.S. and Canadian markets, I notice one blunder time and time again: lawyers’ failure to adapt their native country’s client development techniques to a particular foreign market. In contrast, lawyers who succeed at global rainmaking continuously hone their cross-cultural client development skills.
Successful global rainmakers know how to communicate best with their prospective clients, and they make their efforts culturally appropriate. Often they instinctively adapt their communication style. For example, they might adjust their pace, pitch and inflection; the words they choose; or how forthrightly they speak. They might also adjust their body language, level of formality and the like.
They also tap into their clients cultural values. For example, recently I worked with a firm whose lawyers were cultivating Chinese clients. We tweaked the firm’s traditional client gift (packages of golf balls with the firm logo) by repackaging the balls in groups of eight, considered a lucky number in China, and steering clear of white balls because to many Chinese that color symbolizes death.
Advance research into cultural norms really helps, and thanks to the Internet, such research has become easy and painless. Simply typing in a search like business customs in [name of country] brings many results. Books about foreign business customs abound, one of my favorites being the often humorous Dos and Taboos of Body Language Around the World by Roger Axtell. As this book mentions, seemingly innocuous hand gestures (such as the okay symbol popular in the States) can be highly offensive in other cultures (in this case, Brazil).
While in the process of rainmaking, lawyers should scrutinize their efforts and adapt them if necessary. I helped one frustrated managing partner on this very issue. Despite having a well-connected partner from a particular Latin-American country, the firm failed to attract clients there. It became clear that the managing partners’ hard-charging style and unrealistic expectations about rainmaking time frame was working against the firm. So to adjust the firm’s approach, we combined the managing partners strategic insights with the Latin-American partners’ relationship-focused rainmaking style.
It is true that globalization has diluted cultural values. However, to the extent that lawyers can still tap into culture-specific values, they will have an advantage over others who do not.
American direct communication style and desire for fast progress causes many cross-cultural blunders. Often U.S. lawyers ask for business too quickly and never even realize their gaffe. The potential client will just never hire the lawyer and be too polite to explain why.
Cross-cultural snafus frequently result from differences in values. In many foreign cultures, long-term relationships are a prerequisite to being hired. In China, for example, foreign lawyers must grapple with guanxi, a tradition that prizes relationships and the obligations of mutual assistance arising from them. Similarly, in many Arab and Latin-American countries, U.S. lawyers must expend considerable time and effort developing close personal relationships and important connections in their target business communities.
Conversely, lawyers from relationship-based cultures must ramp up their directness and assertiveness when cultivating American clients. Recently I worked with a Latin-American firm on boosting its client development in the States. The firm’s gracious, indirect communication style had proven ineffective in the fast-paced U.S. market. However, it was able to improve its U.S. rainmaking by learning to promote the firm and the individual attorneys more directly and assertively and to do so in all forms of communication, including marketing materials, the firm’s Web site and in-person communication.
All lawyers who’ve succeeded in developing clients across cultures at some point realized they had to step outside their comfort zone and take the long-term view to develop business abroad. Global rainmaking requires tailoring your client development strategies to each client’s cultural perspective. This takes time, effort and ingenuity, but the global rewards can be extraordinary.
About the Author
Want to weather the US economic downturn? Then, expand abroad…or so say the mega firms quoted in Wise in the Ways of the World, an article in the June issue of the ABA Journal. Business is booming abroad–and getting paid in foreign currency (rather than weak US dollars) sure helps.
Whenever I’ve spoken about the global expansion of law firms, including last year at New York’s Harvard Club, the audience is amazed by the vastness of the subject. In other words, deciding whether, when and how to go global raises a myriad of complex issues.
Above all, there’s the multi-million dollar cost of opening, staffing and maintaining offices abroad. For this reason, only US mega-firms like White & Case, DLA Piper and Baker & McKenzie–three of the firms mentioned in the ABA article–can afford numerous foreign offices. As the article discusses, firms with multiple offices across the globe redeploy attorneys to other international markets when the need arises.
Some mid-sized firms also opt to open select offices abroad–like Gardere which maintains a Mexico City presence. And, regardless of their size, many US firms bolster their international presence by joining an international law firm network (as discussed in last October 19th’s post).
If your firm is considering expanding abroad, advance research is key. Managing the Modern Law Firm, ed. Laura Empson (Oxford Press 2007) is a good starting place. It explains why some US firms have gone global successfully–while others have failed.
The following article just appeared in The Complete Lawyer.
So You Want to Work Abroad?
There are many opportunities to work overseas;
the more you plan, the more success you’ll meet
By Janet H. Moore
As international lawyer coach, I get many email inquiries from lawyers who are interested in working abroad. Some want to gain a particular legal expertise by practicing abroad. Other lawyers are being or want to be transferred abroad by their employers. Still others simply seek the thrill and adventure of practicing law in a foreign country. Whatever the reason, lawyers face many challenges as well as exciting possibilities when contemplating an international move.
Attorneys wishing to relocate abroad should examine their real motivation and formulate clear strategies for doing so. According to Nicholas Rumin, founder and principal of New York-based Rumin Search Consulting, an integral part of this process is being clear about why you are moving, what exactly you want to achieve, and whether your plans are realistic. He notes that lawyers with a clear vision of their goals move forward more quickly.
Rumin, who practiced law internationally for many years before becoming a legal recruiter, recommends significant market research to understand the opportunities, trends and challenges in a given market. After analyzing the foreign market, lawyers need to strategize carefully before taking the plunge. Those who are well positioned (such as those with stellar international credentials, or those poised to move with an existing employer) need to weigh the professional and personal realities of starting over in a new land.
Lawyers who are not well positioned for such a move, such as those without top-notch credentials or â€œin demandâ€ expertise, face an additional hurdle: how to make themselves marketable to foreign employers. These lawyers must figure out which talents or expertise they currently have or can obtain to make them employable abroad.
Rumin also suggests that lawyers honestly assess their strengths and weaknesses, and how those will impact their success abroad. The analysis could be straightforward, such as whether a lawyer has the requisite language skills to build a strong network of local business relationships. Or, he says, the analysis might be complex, such as: How can I market my technical expertise and existing business relationships in structured finance so that I can be immediately relevant to the current practice needs of a law firm in Beijing, and also be perceived as a practice leader in my area of expertise within the capital markets bar?
Michael Ellenhorn, who heads the international division of London-based Longbridge Search & Selection, helps many law firms launch offices abroad or expand existing foreign offices by acquiring practice groups. In this capacity, he works with many lawyers who want to work abroad. He recommends that such a lawyer start by talking to prospective employers close to home about their ability and willingness to post you overseas. Moreover, lawyers must make sure that they communicate their desire to work abroad to the right decision-makers. Ellenhorn, a dual-qualified US lawyer/English solicitor living and working in Europe as a search consultant, also suggests that candidates become qualified to practice in a foreign jurisdiction. Foreign languages, if written and spoken at a business level, are also helpful.
A lawyer’s level of seniority further impacts the analysis. Ellenhorn advises younger attorneys to focus on developing their key legal competencies. “For partners’ focus on the clients. Culture and personal fit are, of course, important, but start your thought process by analyzing your clients, the work you do for them, the price point for that work, and your core skills sets. Examining the possible synergies (of a different platform) with an experienced international consultant can take you a great distance in both testing the viability of your practice in the market and finding the right fit.”
Network At Home And Abroad
When I coach attorneys wanting to move within or into the international field, we formulate and implement a networking plan almost immediately. Organizations such as the international law sections of the American Bar Association or an attorney’s local bar association are good places to connect with international practitioners. The London-based International Bar Association, foreign chambers of commerce and a host of other international bar groups (conveniently listed by Hieros Gamos at hg.org), also facilitate connections.
Networking with members of these organizations, as well as former clients and employers, can be fruitful. According to Rumin, In my experience, the best business and in-house opportunities arise as a direct result of a positive existing client or business relationship.
Once living abroad, lawyers must establish relationships within the local business and legal community. Building contacts abroad is critical because most lawyers relocate to a new market without any significant existing contacts.
Once again, speaking the local language becomes critical to creating a successful practice. The foreign languages most in demand at the moment are, according to Ellenhorn, Mandarin, Arabic, and various dialects of Hindi. Rumin concurs: “With the tremendous economic growth in China, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and potentially the Indian subcontinent, the prospects of these attorneys, particularly where they have local language skills,will continue to grow brighter every year.”
However, for any given lawyer, the most important foreign language to learn is certainly the local language. The sole exception to this, notes Rumin, is the lawyer with a particular technical expertise and/or English language drafting skills where the expertise or the language skills are needed in the new office over and above every other criteria.
Opportunities Exist, Even For Lawyers Without Top Tier Credentials Or Experience
Because hiring attorneys to work abroad is very expensive, employers generally do insist on hiring those with top credentials and experience. Rumin advises lawyers who lack these to “think more creatively about entrepreneurial options to use your specific skill set with your chosen market or else choose a less popular market where some legal employers might be more flexible as to their hiring criteria.”
According to Ellenhorn, several things can help to counteract unimpressive credentials, including becoming qualified in a foreign jurisdiction, earning a foreign LLM certification, and publishing articles and papers on international law topics. Both recruiters strongly recommend getting practical legal experience. Says Ellenhorn, “Experience counts; get involved in cross-border deals and develop a meaningful track record.”
Some lawyers may have success finding international positions with the government or various NGOs through websites like www.state.gov <http://www.state.gov/> or www.usajobs.gov <http://www.usajobs.gov/> . Checking job websites like www.monster.com <http://www.monster.com/> can also be fruitful.
Lawyers Face Real Challenges Working Abroad
When I was a young international lawyer, I was seconded to a large Mexico City-based firm. Although delighted by the experience, I had to adjust to a very different legal practice. Not only was I working in a civil law jurisdiction, but I also faced different cultural norms and expectations about work differences in punctuality, client responsiveness, research techniques, support staff and the like. Grappling with these differences far from home, and without my trusty paralegals and assistant, made some days difficult.
Recognizing that lawyers who relocate abroad face such challenges, Rumin discourages them from moving overseas unless they have at least 2-3 years of significant legal experience. After all, most lawyers will be expected to “hit the ground running without additional formal training.” He notes, “The smaller size of offices in many overseas jurisdictions and the often unfamiliar levels of support services (as compared to a what one is used to in Manhattan or London) make it essential that the lawyer have a level of maturity sufficient to deal fairly independently with the uncertainties and changes that go with practicing law in developing markets.”
Lawyers face still other challenges after they return home. Some are well positioned, having developed a unique expertise that they can leverage with their old employer or a new one (such as an existing client.) In my own case, having worked in Mexico City as a visiting attorney proved invaluable years later when I moved to the legal department of a Fortune 100 company to focus on Latin American business transactions. Similarly, many of my coaching clients find that their expertise gained during stints abroad gives them added credibility and overcomes shortcomings in their academic transcripts and the like.
Other attorney clients of mine have had to retool when they return home. Not only do they face the culture shock that hits any expat upon reentry, but also they find that their work environment has changed. Perhaps office politics have shifted, or their old niche has now been filled by others. Perhaps they feel unappreciated or out of synch with co-workers. As Rumin describes it, “You can’t go home, and any lawyers who think that after two years working abroad they can return to their old firms and simply take up where they left off will very likely be sorely disappointed.”
However, these lawyers return home with fresh skills and heightened experience. After the initial shock of reentry, most such lawyers learn to use these skills effectively in a thriving career with the same employer or another.
Excitement, challenges and rewards await lawyers who thoughtfully strategize before relocating abroad. Says Ellenhorn, “International opportunities can arise from any direction. You just need to be attuned to identifying and going after these opportunities as they present themselves. And for adventurous attorneys willing to work in developing countries, tremendous opportunities exist.” “The great thing about developing markets is that virtually no idea is out of the question,” Rumin concludes, “as long as you have a practical plan to make that idea a reality.”
International lawyers of various nationalities email me for rainmaking tips. Often they are working in countries other than their homelands, such as Indian attorneys practicing in the United States, German lawyers working in Argentina, or American attorneys practicing in Hong Kong.
Regardless of your national heritage, your background can be a real client development asset in that it gives you a unique perspective–and perhaps an advantage over–equally qualified attorneys with a different heritage. Your background must be a compliment to (but not subsitute for) stellar legal skills, and so showing a prospective client that you have the requisite legal acumen is key.
Last week Donald Prophete of Ogletree Deakins explored this topic with Michael Cummings through The Law Marketing Portal, As an African-American partner in his law firm, he routinely thinks about this topic.Â Prophete notes that after he establishes his value with a potential client, “my heritage may be an asset because it can be an advantage for me over other attorneys they may be considering for the work. So, my diverse background complements the business value I provide.”
Similarly, international lawyers may find that they share the same national heritage as certain prospective clients, or that their heritage gives them particular insights into the project at hand–or even the clients on the other side.
Regardless, use your national heritage to your advantage. If you are located abroad, be sure and network witÂ other nationals of your heritage who may become good referral sources. Expats often enjoy connecting with expats from the same country. And as Prophete suggests, look for other professionals of your heritage to mentor you as you grow your practice, even if they work in different fields. This holds true for lawyers both in and outside private practice.