20 January 2012
You know that sinking feeling you get, when you pick up the phone to introduce yourself to your opposite number on a new transaction?
The Big Law Senior Equity
You phone up and introduce yourself and they may deign speak to you. They don’t really like dealing with smaller firms because it happens so rarely in their world. The West End is another country. I mean, it doesn’t have an EC postcode, does it? Never mind the regions.
They assume that you can’t really know what you’re talking about and because you don’t have 16 different specialist sub-departments, advising on the minutiae of each aspect of the law, you can’t possibly have the depth of knowledge needed to deal with complex transactions.
They patronise you from the get-go. Sometimes, once you have been able to demonstrate that you actually do understand the law and can run a transaction, they warm up. The trick is to make them feel that they are very important.
The Enthusiastic Junior
You know the type; very conscientious, very efficient, very tidy file but entirely unable to make a commercial decision for their client because they simply don’t have the experience/authority/expertise.
They run the transaction through the prism of the firm’s handbook and the matter checklist rather than their own knowledge and any deviation is unacceptable. Computer says no. These are the rules and they will get hauled over the coals by their supervising partner if ever they use their initiative. Any attempt by you to explain how it’s normally done, or try to argue that the amendments are necessary, to reflect the agreed terms are utterly futile. You have met a brick wall in human form.
They use phrases such as “but it’s in our standard documents” or “I’ll have to check with the partner in charge” at which point you slit your wrists and realise that your profits have just taken a nosedive. At some point, others in the firm will be roped in, because the junior will have had some sort of mini-meltdown after working till 2 am on three consecutive nights trying to make sense of your various amendments.
And just when you think you’ve got there they ask the tax department to do a final review and they send a whole new set of amendments. It’s not their fault. These are the rules. There is no trick to dealing with this type of lawyer other than making sure that there is a large glass of wine waiting for you at the end of the day.
The Small Firm Maverick
These can be the trickiest to deal with because they don’t play by the rules. You’re often dealing with the senior partner and he (for it is always a he) will say things you like “I’ve been doing this for 35 years, dear ” or “it’s really simple you’re just making it complicated”. Occasionally, you get a really marvellous small firm maverick, who really knows what he’s doing, does it quickly and efficiently without any nonsense and has a sense of humour.
Oh yes a sense of humour, that rare commodity in law firms these days. I worked with a real maverick once. He was a property finance lawyer. When borrowers’ solicitors rang him up chasing for documentation, his invariable response would be “what do you think I do all day, sonny boy, eat paper and shit mortgages?”
You’d probably get reported for that now. You certainly would for the comment he made to his secretary, who made the fatal error of bringing him a cup of tea without a spoon. “What am I meant to stir it with? My ****?” The trick with dealing with this type of lawyer is to recognise that they have a sense of humour and make the most of it. If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.
These are your worst nightmare. These are the lawyers who make you lose the will to live. They destroy any goodwill in the transaction within the first two days, start a chain of bad-mouthing which escalates to the point of sheer hatred and will put everyone on the defensive, including clients.
At best, they try to make themselves look good by making you look bad. At worst, they delay transactions and make them painful beyond belief, adopting passive-aggressive or even aggressive- aggressive and bullying behaviour. These lawyers can, strangely, be fairly pleasant on the telephone, lulling you into a false sense of security, but show their true colours in nasty, nitpicking, point-scoring e-mails, subtly skewing the facts and copied to everyone, including your own client.
Nice. We love them don’t we? The trick to dealing with this type of lawyer is just to acknowledge from the start that it is going to be a revolting few weeks and that your file has to be utterly perfect. If you get sucked into tit-for-tat behaviour you’ve lost and your profits fly out of the window. Be nice to them. They hate it.
Joking aside, I’m not sure why it is that lawyers are just so damn difficult to deal with. In this difficult economic environment it doesn’t make sense to behave badly. Lawyers should start from the point of mutual respect. Meeting client demands can be difficult enough, do we also have to tear strips out of each other?
I wonder whether it’s because clients can be so difficult that we have to take it out somewhere so we take it out on our fellow professionals. A lawyer I know who deals with professional partnership disputes told me that those involving lawyers are always the most bitter, personal and highly contested. Why are we so horrible to each other?
Surely collaboration is better than confrontation. The clients would certainly prefer it and everyone would be happier. Dare I say that we might even be more profitable? So, I make a plea for politeness, for integrity and for a sense of humour. Try it, you might like it.
Nicky Richmond, managing partner, Brecher