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Of all the urban legends about life as a first-year associate, the one that is debunked the fastest is the myth that first-years don’t ever deal with, talk to or have an impact on clients. Younger attorneys have a big impact on client relationships across all areas of practice. No matter where a young attorney works or what type of client he or she represents, a few simple considerations will greatly benefit both the client’s agenda and the attorney’s professional development. The first and most beneficial undertaking a young associate should perform at the beginning of a new client relationship is the job of researching the client. What does the client do or make? How big is it and where is it located? Is it a corporation or an individual? Does the client employ a slew of outside law firms or just one? Most of these questions can be easily answered by a quick Web search or an investigation of the firm’s history with the client. Of course, the partners or senior associates on the case are a great source for any lingering questions; they will be able to communicate why the client has hired the firm, what the client’s expectations are and what is expected of the junior associate. It is also important to keep tabs on developments with the client. Signing up for Web news alerts can be a helpful tool for keeping up with developments that involve clients. It is also a good idea to get up-to-date, regular information on the client’s financial performance via Web-alerts or financial Web sites if the client is a public company. Even if no one is currently asking the junior associate to do anything on the case, the associate should pay attention to e-mails and correspondence, and periodically check in with the lead partner on the case. The more a young attorney knows about a client, the easier it will be to communicate, answer questions and contribute to the group’s effort in representing it. The partner in charge will no doubt be impressed at the initiative and it could also potentially save a young attorney some embarrassment if he or she is ever asked an on-the-spot question about the client or the case. In addition to inquiring about the client’s preferences in terms of the representation, it is important to get an idea from the partner about the client’s style. Do the client’s executives like to be involved in every stage of the representation, or would they prefer not to be bothered? Will the client’s representatives call when they want to know something, and if so, will they call the associate or the partner? It will spare a young attorney some headaches to know ahead of time whether the client should be carbon copied on every e-mail, or would prefer to receive only weekly updates or status reports. The client’s reaction to the representation may also depend on the type of case or deal on which the firm has been engaged. A client involved in a class action that could cost millions of dollars may be slightly more tense than a client without so much at stake. A client may want speed in resolving or settling a conflict, or may be interested more in exploring every detail. These are questions that the senior partner on the case will be able to answer, and the answers will help the young attorney to follow along with the team’s strategy. Professionalism counts A young associate will likely have substantially more involvement with clients through e-mails, letters and phone calls than in person. Therefore, it is imperative for a young associate to remember manners, boundaries and common sense in communicating with clients. First, it is important to always be professional. The client is paying a lot of money for both the quality of the work and the lawyers’ reputations. It is essential to be courteous when leaving messages and writing e-mails, and associates should always remember that, at least initially, it is better to be overly formal than overly casual. Second, an associate should pay attention to previous correspondence. A young attorney should look at sample letters and e-mails that the partner or senior associates on the case have sent to the client in this and other matters. This will help demonstrate the level of formality that is required as well as the level of detail. Also, the first-year associate should pay attention to the client’s communications with the attorneys. Finally, it is vital to know the technical limitations and preferences of the client. This means finding out whether the client’s representatives are sophisticated enough to deal with Excel spreadsheets or whether they prefer PDF documents, and never assuming that the client contacts will be able to view a type of file without asking them about it first. It is also important to remember that in the vast majority of cases, the client is not a lawyer. This means that he or she has neither the time nor the expertise necessary to decipher complicated legalese. One of the biggest pitfalls for young associates in dealing with clients is trying too hard to impress them by sounding like a law professor. Therefore it is always a good idea to speak in plain English, concisely and with conviction. In the unlikely situation in which the client would prefer something more technical, he or she will certainly request it. Finally, new associates should remember that while it is important to be professional, they should be themselves. At the end of the day, that “scary” client is a real, ordinary person, presumably with a family and a life outside of work. After navigating the waters a bit and forging a good relationship with a client, it is acceptable to be friendly and personable. That Italian client will no doubt appreciate (or expect) some congratulatory words on the World Cup victory, and he will be happy to know that his attorneys consider him to be something more than the sponsor of their hourly rates. Building relationships Another practice that is invaluable in helping maintain sanity while managing a good relationship with a client is building good working relationships with client “peers.” Sometimes this is difficult or even impossible if the client is an individual or a small business. However, chances are that if the client is a large corporation or a general counsel’s office, there is someone working the low end of the totem pole at the client’s offices. Partners often say that many things get done and many crises are averted thanks to good communication and camaraderie among junior team members, especially when there is no need for partners or other senior team members to be involved. The same goes for building relationships with co-counsel. Like many of these tools for dealing with clients, cultivating good relationships with peers, particularly peers who are attorneys, is invaluable both now and later in a young associate’s career. Co-counsel peers can share information about the client and the matter, facilitate communications and sympathize with the calamities that arise at the young attorney’s level. The world of attorneys is a relatively small one, and it is not uncommon to see attorney peers over and over again in a courtroom, at a conference table or at a cocktail hour. It will always be to the benefit of young associates to commit to cooperative and friendly interaction with their peers. It is also a good idea to keep in mind that the adage “the customer is always right” applies to clients-for the most part. A client hires a firm to do what it wants and get the result it wants, within the bounds of legality. When the firm is hired, however, it does not necessarily mean that the client will sit back and let the attorneys run the show. Some clients want constant access to their lawyers (which, for busy partners may translate into constant access to the young associates); others may want to be intimately involved in drafting briefs or deal papers. Regardless of how tricky it may make the job, it is essential to involve the clients as much as they want, barring some instruction to the contrary from the partner in charge. Ultimately, it is the client’s life, money or reputation that is on the line, and his or her opinions, odd or off-base as they might be, that are important to consider and implement. Some of the more interesting and unexpected client requests a first year associate may encounter will involve a client’s expectation to be entertained. A young attorney might be asked to attend everything from dinner at a nice restaurant to a deep-sea fishing excursion. Going the extra mile for a client is part of the job description of a young attorney, even if it means a 6:00 a.m. breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts before a deposition or hand-delivering a brief to the Four Seasons. These are opportunities for young attorneys to show the client that they are dedicated and good at the job. When a talented and trustworthy junior associate is on the matter, it provides added value for the client. Clients can benefit a great deal from the interested involvement of junior associates. First, when the client deals with a junior attorney instead of a partner, it simply costs less. If a client is convinced that a junior associate is just as capable of performing the same tasks as a senior associate or partner, the client will be thrilled to pay less for the same service. Good billing practices go hand in hand with this idea. Young associates should remember that the client typically sees the associate’s name or initials and time worked on a bill. Keeping track of time with precision and detail is a great way to impress a client because it shows attention to detail and commitment to charging the client fairly for the hard work. Second, it benefits the client to have exposure and advice from people at all levels of the firm. As is often the case, the client may call or e-mail the junior associate at night or on the weekend-times when the partner is unavailable. It is extremely valuable for the client to be able to reach the junior associate, whether the result is that the associate can answer the question, or has the partner’s ear when he or she is otherwise unavailable. Finally, clients usually want to hear the advice of lawyers over and over, even if the news is bad or unchanged from the last time they heard it. The client will be more assured hearing the advice from several attorneys’ perspectives, provided it is accurate information about the matter that was approved by a more senior associate. Good client skills, while not ordinarily stressed as part of a first-year associate’s priorities, are vital at any level. All attorneys, whether associates or partners, have an active responsibility to the client. If a young associate can develop a good working relationship with a client, the associate will impress not only the bill-paying client, but also the bonus-paying partners. And then everyone is happy. Kathleen C. Leicht is an associate in the litigation practice in the New York office of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. She can be reached at [email protected].

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