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?