By Shermin Kruse
Barack Ferrazzano Kirschbaum & Nagelberg
I recently received a letter from a junior partner in a highly respected law firm (who wished to remain anonymous) asking me to advise him on how to deal with unresponsive clients.
The story goes like this: An associate or young partner is assigned the task of interfacing with the client. The young attorney has a difficult time of it and feels that they are not receiving input or full cooperation from the client.
Sometimes, they perceive the reason for this lack of responsiveness to be the attorney's youth, gender or race. They do not want to approach a senior partner, fearing the complaint will be seen as an excuse for not completing the project or as their inability to deal with an important client. On the other hand, they cannot confront the client because of the many negative implications of such a confrontation.
How would I "advise navigating through this rock and hard place," the anonymous writer asked me.
If you are a young attorney, you can and absolutely should approach more senior partners with these types of concerns. It is far more likely than not that your clients have good reasons for not returning your calls. And, if that is not the case, then the situation should be managed by someone with more senior status who has a relationship with the client. Approach the senior partner, discuss the concerns at hand and what you have done thus far to alleviate them and seek advice on where to go from here, which might include the partner's intervention.
If you have made significant efforts to solve the problems, but are really faced with an unresponsive client, then you will not be perceived as a failure or lazy by the partner.
If you are a senior partner, ask yourself whether you have created an environment that enables younger attorneys to approach you with these difficulties.
Such an approach would provide an excellent teaching and leadership opportunity. Not only can you coach the young attorney on how to navigate the waters of client relationships, but you could also provide some helpful insight.
For example, maybe the calls are not returned because there is a companywide audit or annual report due that week. Information that might be at your fingertips, but not available to a younger lawyer, may save everyone lots of headaches.
And, in an environment where deadlines are important, keeping your fingers on the pulse of such issues will enable you to stay on schedule and better manage the case.
If you are a general counsel, query whether you are aware of such problems faced by many young attorneys.
The reality is that the tasks for which younger attorneys contact you are likely to be dreary ones, such as preparing discovery responses, collecting documents or answering a complaint.
After all, the more important issues (high level strategy/negotiation discussions) involve senior partners.
So perhaps you delay responding to the calls of these younger attorneys for the simple reason that your work day is too busy to deal with such tedious matters. It is entirely rational to push this return call to the end of the day, after all the more urgent matters are dealt with.
Or if there was not enough hours in that day, then the next day. Or the next. When is the answer due again?
Do we really have to deal with these obnoxious e-discovery issues when there are actual business matters that have to be dealt with at our company?
For young associates, however, this is not only their job, but an exciting opportunity for the ever evasive "client contact" that they seek more than nearly any other experience. Indeed, the question asked by most law students during recruiting season is: "How much client contact will I have at your firm?" They view client interactions as their ability to present themselves as the professionals they were trained to be, rather than laborers locked in conference rooms and told to review millions of documents.
As to senior associates and junior partners, they have the difficult job of monitoring deadlines and managing the day-to-day discovery issues (as litigators) and due diligence concerns (as transactional attorneys).
It's hard work that often takes them away from their families.
So ask yourself: Am I a difficult client? If not, then ask: Am I perceived to be difficult?
The impact of such perceptions can be enormous and may result in a dysfunctional team dynamic that is costly, inefficient and just unpleasant.
So be kind to the young attorney pestering you about affidavits in support of this and documents responsive to that.
Give them a quick call or drop them a quick e-mail, even if just to let them know you will have to schedule a longer talk at a later time. And thank God you are past your 20s (um … 30s/40s?).