Nobody’s Somebody Everywhere

by Timothy B. Corcoran on November 14, 2011

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I’m continually amazed at the curious phenomenon common to the legal profession, where we anoint to celebrity status certain lawyers who appear to have mastered a particular subject matter. It goes beyond wishful thinking and bleeds into blind optimism that somehow we are as world-famous, if not world-class, as we think.

I visited four cities during one busy week recently, meeting with something like twenty law firm clients of all shapes and sizes to discuss trends in legal marketing and business development.  In separate conversations at three different firms, legal marketers described one of their top lawyers as “One of the best, if not the best, in the country in this practice area.”  This would be a startling coincidence, as the cities and firms I visited could best be described as a random sample from the NLJ 250.  What are the odds that of all the practice areas, and of all the firms in this group offering these practice areas, and of all of the lawyers in these firms engaged in these practice areas, I was sufficiently fortunate to cross paths with the top practitioner three separate times? Astounding!

The stark reality is that not every accomplished lawyer is a celebrity.  And even those who have mastered their domain and are indeed shining lights in the profession are often little more than transient blips in the daily lives of the business professionals who hire them.  Ouch.

I’ve written previously about this concept, which hearkens back to our school days.  Imagine the coolest guy or the most popular gal in your high school.  Now imagine your hero transplanted overnight to a different school a thousand miles away.  Will Miss Popular or Mister Big Man on Campus be afforded the same privileges and adoration by the fawning class immediately upon arrival?  Isn’t it more likely that some measure of their “success” is a function of time and location and isn’t readily transferable, at least not immediately?  I say this with the greatest amount of respect for the exemplary credentials and accomplishments of the many lawyers I’ve hired and on whom I’ve relied over the years in my corporate career:  I simply can’t recall your names, even though by and large I valued your contribution in addressing my business issues.

A couple years ago I gave a talk to a group of lawyers assembled for a conference in a South American country.  After I had returned to the airport and while sitting in the business lounge awaiting my flight home, I suddenly became aware of a large number of thick-necked men in dark suits roaming about and a growing sense of hustle in the airport staff.  One beefy man was evidently assigned to watch me, as he stood a short distance away gazing alertly in my direction.  In time a private plane pulled up on the tarmac outside the ground floor lounge and a non-descript man in a natty suit disembarked and was accompanied into the lounge by several stern men, and when the bags were retrieved they all disappeared in a flash out a side door.  To this day I have no idea who this dignitary was, although he was clearly of some importance to the locals.  However, I have a distinct recollection of annoyance, as whoever he was delayed all air traffic for a short time, including my departure, which put my later connecting flight at risk.

This anecdote came to mind recently when I was chatting with a General Counsel after we participated on a panel discussion together.  We were both invited to speak at a law firm partner retreat, sharing anecdotes and best practices between in-house counsel and outside counsel.  She admitted some reluctance, because though she had recently concluded a successful and quite large transaction with the firm’s help, she was not delighted with the performance of one of the senior partners.  He and his team delivered excellent legal advice, she reported, but she was constantly chasing the partner for budget updates and she was regularly negotiating invoices that reflected much higher fees than she had agreed to.  Each conversation followed a predictable path:  the partner would patiently (and somewhat patronizingly, she added) explain why the nature and complexity of the transaction allowed little predictability, and the partner claimed that other clients happily paid his fees because he delivered the desired results.  The partner would then agree to write down a portion of the invoice and the cycle would repeat the following month.

But it was the other predictable conversation that troubled her more:  the divisional CFO would request a quarterly budget update for her transactions, the invoices on this matter would exceed budget every quarter, and even when she negotiated a write-down and added cushion she was left in the unfortunate position of explaining and justifying the budget exceptions.  Again and again.  To the person who signs her paycheck.  Not surprisingly, the CFO didn’t know the sterling reputation of the lawyer, didn’t have an appreciation for the complexity of the legal matter and accordingly at the conclusion of the transaction he strongly suggested that this lawyer not be re-hired for future work based on his “poor” performance.

While there are several learning opportunities here, a key takeaway is the lawyer’s misguided sense of importance in the client’s operation.  His lack of interest in providing budget predictability was, to the ultimate buyer of the lawyer’s services, an indication of poor performance.  The renowned reputation of the lawyer, the presumably high quality of legal work product and the successful conclusion of past engagements meant little.  Too often lawyers lose business without realizing it.  My friend the GC wasn’t planning to “fire” the lawyer but she would protect her integrity and her future legal budgets by simply not re-hiring this particular partner.  She was, she shared to little surprise, inundated with unsolicited approaches from other capable lawyers who might deliver the same result but with less surprise and stress.  It wasn’t the overall cost, she reiterated, it was the constant uncertainty and failure to adhere to a budget that troubled her.

At a recent conference held at the Opryland Hotel outside Nashville, I was dashing to a very early breakfast meeting when I passed a young man in a cowboy hat strumming a guitar while sitting alone in an empty side lobby.  “What a curious time and place for the hotel to arrange entertainment,” I thought as I sped by.  When I returned an hour later, this same young man was at the head of a long line, signing autographs and posing for photographs.  As it turns out, he was a well-known country music star who had just concluded an  interview on the Grand Ole Opry radio station conveniently located within the hotel (who knew?).  Several dozen fans came out to hail the star and he caused quite a commotion.  Don’t ask me who he was, because the sum total of what I know about country music and its talented stars could be written on a guitar pick.  But that’s the point.  I wasn’t this young man’s target audience so to me he was merely a curious diversion on the walk back to my hotel room.

Whether you’re a practicing lawyer who believes that you’re a star in your field, or a marketer asked to cater to the needs of one of these many stars, be sure to first ask some tough questions: Am I selling only a reputation or am I selling solutions to my client’s business challenges?  Have I confirmed what constitutes a quality work product for this client on this engagement?  Am I confident that my contact and the person who pays the legal bills share the same definition of quality work product?  Am I working as hard to keep this client satisfied as I worked to win this client in the first place?

It’s hard work to achieve the many accolades and laurels that accomplished lawyers are awarded.  But let’s be sure not to rest on those laurels, particularly if there are hungry rivals waiting to delight your clients.  Your reputation alone may not be sufficient to win, and keep, work from dissatisfied clients.  And it might might be humbling, but extraordinarily helpful, to acknowledge that your reputation might not mean all that much in the first place.

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