Ken posted an entry with the title: “Can Business Lawyers Afford to Practice ‘Defensively.’” I’ve been a business lawyer for almost 30 years, so I think I have at least some perspective on that issue and I thought I’d contribute to the discussion with some historical observations. I apologize in advance if I sound like I’m suggesting that someone get off my lawn.
There are significant differences between legal practice today and when I began. You know longer hear the clack of typewriters at the secretaries’ desks and I can communicate with a client in a foreign country as easily and quickly as I can one next door. We see our clients in the office less frequently and are less frequently physically on their premises. Yet we can watch a webcam of the construction of a project we’ve worked on, even though it’s thousands of miles away, 24/7 in real time.
But the difference I’d like to highlight is the slicing and dicing of legal work among firms. To be clear, I am not complaining about this. I get my share of clients who hire me for exactly my kind of expertise, whether in banking, agricultural, food law, Native American law or commercial law. I appreciate their business and would not recommend they use someone with less expertise somewhere else.
But there is a cost, and the cost can show up in exactly the situations Ken was describing in his blog entry.
When I first started out, the firm did all the legal work for four major clients, and everyone in the firm was indoctrinated into the ins and outs of dealing with these clients, from the CEO to the general counsel’s office and managers we would work with all the time. You quickly learned their risk profiles, which one wanted no stone left unturned and which ones didn’t want you to sweat the small stuff. It did not take long before it was second nature to translate for one client the question of “should we do this?” to “should we do this where we might have no risk of loss?” and for another as “should we do this so long as our chances of success are better than 50/50?”
All four of those clients are gone, one way or another: merged or retreated from the market or having chosen to send their legal business elsewhere. We still do have clients like that, although the firm is so large and diverse it is less certain that everyone will work for those clients. And it is hard to overstate how much easier it is to answer the kind of questions Ken is talking about for such clients.
When I do get hired on a one-time basis, I try as best I can to determine what the company’s risk profile is before I ever give any advice. There are many obstacles to this: my initial contact might be another outside counsel who is barely more clued in than I am, or it might be an inside counsel who hasn’t been with the company long, or the real decision maker is three steps up from my contact, and isn’t telling.
In terms of today’s jargon, the more transparency, the better the legal advice will match the client’s risk profile. The more opacity, the more likely I am to practice defensively.