Once the backstory is established, it is important to understand all of the players that are involved in the matter, whether those players are immediately apparent or not.
Scenario: Bob at Law Firm A interfaces with Raj at Client B. Bob and Raj have a very friendly relationship. Bob handles Raj’s requests, and Raj is happy with Bob's work. Bob updates Raj periodically about the matters that Firm A is handling for Client B via brief phone calls or informal emails. But note that Bob is just one mid-level lawyer at Firm A, and there are many other people at Firm A involved in the actual work to service Client B. Similarly, while Raj is a mid-level manager at Client B, there are many other decision makers behind Raj at Client B. In fact, Raj only makes routine decisions.
The Problem: Bob and Raj are two tips of two icebergs. To Raj, Bob FEELS like the lawyer. What is worse is that to Bob, Raj FEELS like the client. But this is not really the case. There are many people -- who we like to call "hidden players" -- on each side. And those people matter.
A New Wrinkle: Now let us add in that Client B is a large property management firm, representing a building owned by a limited partnership. Client B brings the partnership to Firm A for an important engagement.
Analysis of What is Wrong with this Picture: First of all, Client B is not really the client - the partnership is. What follows is a list of people that the law firm, in this example, should seek to identify and learn as much about as possible:
(1) The property manager, who is Firm B’s contact at "the client".
(2) More senior property managers, who are the contact's superiors.
(3) The real client, namely the partners in the limited partnership.
(4) The people who work for the limited partnership.
(5) The partners’ spouses, siblings or other close advisers.
(6) Future partners, i.e. the next generation of the partnership, if they are imminently on their way in.
(7) General Counsel for the partnership.
Why are we thinking about this?
Too many lawyer-client relationships, even between larger firms and bigger companies, are based on discrete personal relationships between one lawyer at a firm and one contact at the client-company. From a business development point of view, this might be fine. But when considering how to best represent a client, a law firm has to consider who all the players, hidden and revealed, are.
I recently represented a client, a sophisticated business person, in a real estate related litigation. The matter was well underway when the phone rang. Who was it? The client's son, an attorney, someone I had never met, barely heard about, and wasn't even sure that I had authorization from the real client to be speaking to. Once I confirmed that I was authorized by the client to speak to his son, I gladly did so. Fortunately, I had sent the client a series of Legal Project Management Letters, a type of communication that we will talk about in a subsequent chapter, and the client’s son knew exactly what was going on. It was a good starting point for our conversation, and a good reminder that I was being closely watched by more people than just the client. I like to refer to all the people on our side of a litigation caption who are concerned with our work as our "client audience".
Law often feels like a very personal business, and a lawyer handling the day-to-day aspects of a matter can come to feel like the client audience is one person, i.e. his contact on the end of the phone. With even the simplest matters, however, that is often not the case. A lawyer has to first understand that the client audience is filled with people who are giving the matter different degrees of their attention, many of whom may be sitting in the shadows. The second thing the lawyer has to do is to try to understand as much about the client audience as possible.
A good way to look at your client is as an audience. When you are on stage, you can only see the people in the first row. The auditorium is often filled, however, with people many rows back, who you can’t see. You need to be documenting your work for those hidden players as well as for your main client contact.
We start by simply Googling a new client and everyone attached to them. Another thing that a lawyer can and should do at the outset of a new relationship when gathering information and trying to figure out who is out there in his client audience, is simply ask the main contact. A lawyer should not be afraid to ask his client about client’s inner workings. Who will be making the decisions here? Will those people be interfacing directly with the firm? What are they like? Do I have your permission to communicate directly with corporate counsel?
Labels: Ch. 08 - Who are the Players?