Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: Practical Advice for New Lawyers

Q: I have just started having direct contact with a client. I need some information from the client to complete a project. But I have contacted the client several times, and I have not gotten any response. I'm concerned about telling the partner, because the partner may think I can’t handle the situation. Do you have any suggestions?

A: Yes. The client is probably just busy. You can try some additional approaches, but if the project is languishing, you need to tell the partner. My answer below assumes, of course, that the information you requested is not something that your client is legally compelled to produce.

Here are some approaches that may help you get what you need:

  1. Offer to help. As a lawyer, completing legal projects is one of your primary functions. Not so for your client. Your client develops software, sells real estate, builds buildings, bakes pastries, prepares tax returns, or performs one of the other innumerable functions that keep our economy humming. Even if your project will help your client achieve an important goal, the project may be a distraction. And legal services are arcane, expensive and often involve conflict. All of these things may keep the project at the bottom of the client’s “to-do” list. Your job as a lawyer is to make your client’s life easier. But by giving homework, you have made your client’s life harder. If you can reduce the burden, you may have more success getting what you need. Offer to do the legwork for the client. Can you go to your client’s office – or send a paralegal? Is there someone else in the client’s office who might have the information? Is there another source for the same information?
  1. Communicate the benefit. What is obvious to you is probably not obvious to your client. Make sure you have been clear about exactly what you need – and the ultimate benefit to the client. A vague directive will not be well received. When you are making your request, you have to explain how it will help the client. You should also explain the timing for key steps that have to occur after you get the information. That will keep your client from being surprised. Your client may not realize that you don’t have a giant machine at the office that cranks out contracts and other legal instruments. But don’t turn a timeline discussion into a tale of woe. Keep things matter-of-fact. You want the client to understand that you are helping the client with planning – and aren’t complaining.
  1. Check in with the partner. Presumably, your assignment came from a partner or senior lawyer. You need to check in if there is a roadblock. Your instincts are sound in not wanting to dump the problem on the assigning lawyer. But there are several reasons to check in. The partner may be concerned about the delay. Or the partner may have information that the client’s priorities have changed. And some clients may resist working with junior attorneys. The partner may need to vouch for you with the client and remind the client that working with you is less expensive. Phrase your conversation in a way that seeks advice on how you can resolve the issue. For example, “I have e-mailed xyz several times and have not heard back. Would you recommend that I . . . ?” The partner might also volunteer to leave a message for the client that breaks the logjam.
  1. Don’t let anxiety cause you to pester. With clients, there is no quid-pro-quo – other than paying your bill. You have to call clients back promptly. They do not have to call you back at all. If the client isn’t responding and the deadline is being set by the client, the project is not urgent. You may want to finish it. You may want to avoid a last-minute crush. Those are reasonable goals, but your focus has to stay on making the client’s life easier. Make sure you have waited a reasonable amount of time before making a follow-up request.

Good luck!

Join the conversation by submitting questions on Twitter @Babysharklaw or here. Get the new Second Edition of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks here.

Grover E. Cleveland is a Seattle lawyer, speaker and author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer (West 2d. 2016). Grover specializes in programs to help new lawyers successfully transition from law school to practice, helping them provide more value and avoid common mistakes. He is a former partner at Foster Pepper PLLC, one of the Northwest’s larger firms. His clients included the Seattle Seahawks and other entities owned by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. Grover is a frequent presenter on lawyer career success and generational issues at leading law firms and schools nationwide. Many questions in this column come from those programs. Readers may submit questions here or follow him on Twitter @Babysharklaw. He is not related to the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.

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