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Being the general counsel of a state agency with wide-ranging, sometimes unpredictable, legal needs affords the opportunity to observe what impresses clients, for better or worse, about outside attorneys in both the government and private sectors. Although you will rarely be thanked for your efforts, rest assured that lawyers are generally viewed as authority figures whose words and actions carry considerable weight. Here are suggestions to bear in mind while you build relationships with in-house counsel and your mutual clients. Do return phone calls as promptly as possible, and ask for information when you need it. This sounds trite, but it is a gold standard. As Martha Stewart would say, “It’s a good thing” when a client seeks your input on issues they are working through. It is practically extraordinary if they are looking for guidance before undertaking an activity that could have consequences. Encourage that risk-assessment behavior by using positive reinforcement and making yourself (or a colleague) available to listen. As a corollary to this, ask for information if you have not received enough to proceed on your assignment, particularly if it is a routine matter. Balls do get dropped from time to time. Occasionally clients need to be prodded because their own plates are full or the project is no longer a priority. Find out why you have not heard from them. Don’t “brainstorm” with another lawyer in front of nonattorney clients. Most folks are a bit anxious and somber when faced with the prospect of meeting with outside counsel. They are often looking for help with a knotty business matter or are involved with a lawsuit. Those who enjoy snickering at lawyer jokes seem to take a vow of silence when they find themselves in circumstances that require legal assistance. Simply put, people want you to come and explain how their problems are going to be solved, and they are willing to be quiet and pay attention to the strategy you suggest. When your assistance is requested, you naturally listen to your client’s explanation of the background facts and the trouble at hand. Hopefully, by the time you meet with your client, you are able to unveil at least a preliminary approach to addressing the legal issues. A question-and-answer session is sure to ensue. As the discussion progresses, someone poses a hypothetical that you need to sort through. You turn to your colleague and start thinking out loud about theories, case law and tactics that may apply to the facts that were thrown at you. This is your golden opportunity to lose any nonattorney who was able to follow along with you up until this point. Nothing will make your clients’ eyes glaze over, as they recant their silent apologies for wisecracking about attorneys, faster than a good dousing from a legal brainstorming session. Try to avoid the practice. This is not to say that you need to “dumb it down” for clients. Reasoned responses are just easier to comprehend than streams of consciousness, legal or not. It is a challenge to follow this advice, especially in situations where the value of a speedy response precludes your going back to the office, noodling through the facts and presenting your conclusions later. Do send pleadings and summary letters routinely. If you are hired to handle a bankruptcy or other litigation matter, you will need to track, prepare, and/or review all of the motions and briefs in the case. Remember that in-house counsel is both the front line for answering questions on hot issues and the keeper of broad, institutional legal knowledge. Help her fulfill her duties better by providing her with complete copies of all proceedings so that she has instant access to the record. Also, display the expertise for which you were hired by sending along a short summary of the pleading or brief. This need only be a couple of sentences, but enough to impart the gist of the matter. It will save her from duplicating your efforts, while alerting her to an action item or other concern that needs to be addressed. Don’t commit to a deadline that you cannot keep. It is important to be honest about this with your clients. If you cannot get a draft out until next Wednesday, do not say it will be with the other side’s attorney first thing next week. Most people are juggling several projects, as you are, and trust you to be reasonable about your ability to make good on your promise. It is embarrassing to a client who believes that a document has been delivered to the other side and then receives a call from the other party after the due date, asking where the papers are. Be candid at the outset, and call your client if you are unable to meet the target deadline. Failing to do so undermines your credibility, whether or not you get called on your tardiness. You will most likely be given the benefit of the doubt the first time but may not get a second chance to repair the damage. In today’s competitive market, it is not a risk to be taken lightly. Do provide copies of research memoranda. Many of us who left our impressions in the chairs of the finest law libraries while slogging through treatises and court reporters are grateful for the changes that the Internet has brought. Even though you may conduct the study in more comfortable quarters today, research memoranda can still take a lot of billable time to produce, whether the answers are out there or not. The citations to and summaries of case law and other materials that relate to an assignment from your client will most likely be useful additions to limited in-house legal reference materials. Also, an issue similar to the one you explored may arise in the future, and your client should have the resource you created at his or her disposal and not have to reinvent the wheel. Since your clients are paying for the product, show them your handiwork. Don’t forget to proofread. In the rush to complete substantive work, typographical or grammatical errors may creep into your final product. It is not the end of the world if this happens, but it may lead to a funny take on the quality of your work. Aside from the risk of your appearing sloppy, nonlawyers often worry that if they catch an error, their attorney may be missing other, bigger legal things. The care you take will be noted, even if not explicitly acknowledged. Lisa G. Bakanas is general counsel for State of Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development. (This article represents the author’s personal views, and not those of the State of Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development.)

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