In Biglaw, on a lot of conference calls there is the partner, the senior associate, and the junior associate. Depending on the personalities of the partner and the senior associate (i.e., whether the partner likes to talk a lot), sometimes the partner will do most of the talking, and other times the senior associate does most of the talking. Out of all the conference calls I was on during my years in Biglaw that had those three participants, I was never on one where the junior associate did most (or any) of the talking.
In SmallLaw, you do all of the talking, no matter if you’re partner-level or a new grad. You do all the talking if the subject is squarely in your practice area and you know exactly what you are talking about. You do all the talking if the subject is just outside of your practice area but you’ve had time to prep. You do all the talking if you just learned at the start of the conference call what the subject of the call is, and you have never heard that word before in your life. “Um, what exactly is [thing you’ve never heard of]?” “It’s a cybersecurity compliance regime. Tell us what we need to do to comply with it.” And the line will go silent while everyone waits for you to explain how to comply with this thing you had never heard of until 30 seconds ago.
So what do you do? Panic? Not on your life. Though it might not seem like it at the time, you actually have several options. In no particular order, here they are:
Hang up, send an email saying you got cut off and are dialing back in, spend two minutes frantically Googling, then dial back in. State that you do not know anything about this topic but if they give you a couple of hours or a day to look into it, then you’ll be happy to get back on a call with them and speak about the topic. This is otherwise called the “chickenship” approach, and is often followed a few hours later with an email from the client stating that they found another lawyer to handle this matter. Start telling everyone that you are the perfect choice for this matter and then start going through your bio, and while you’re rattling that off, Google frantically. Tie the subject back to something about which you know. “Well, it’s similar to [something you know about].” Then talk a little about [something you know about] and describe how you handle matters in that sphere and make analogies to the current situation. This approach often yields new information, since people will mention ways the current matter is different, so it turns into a back-and-forth that allows you to state how these differences will affect your approach and what they need to do. Keep things high-level. “Breaking the law is bad, but if you have to do it, take steps to make sure you don’t get caught.” “Generally it’s good not to bribe people.” “Dodd-Frank is quite onerous.” Surprisingly, sometimes this is enough. Have one of your associates Google frantically and email you whatever they can find. (This works!) Start asking open-ended questions. “Before I answer your question, tell me about your current compliance regime.” That will get the other folks on the line talking, giving you time to — wait for it — Google frantically. Talk about your approach to analyzing the situation. Walk them through how you will handle it, which could just be the way you handle any situation (e.g., “first, we perform a gap analysis”), or it could be something special you do in this particular area.
“We’re going to be looking for X, and if we find it, that will mean it will be a whole lot more difficult to do Y. At that point, doing Z is usually the better approach.” Usually when I’m giving the opening general info, I’ll start making a list of items that seem relevant, so by the time I get to them they’ve been somewhat thought-out.
Being able to gab on topics you don’t have full command of is a good skill to pick up. When talking to a potential client, many times you may be confident you can help the person if you got the work, but you may not know every detail relevant to the person’s situation right then and there. The last one above about going through your approach is particularly handy. It can make you seem thoughtful and meticulous, qualities that are appealing to potential clients.
Note that a lot of times people really do just want to know a lawyer’s gut reaction. (“We plan on using crowdfunding to raise the money to put out a hit on our neighbor’s gardener. Can crowdfunding be used in this way?”) There might be certain steps to the project, and maybe the first few steps are small enough they don’t want a lot of time billed on it, but then at later stages, they’ll want something from you that is more substantial than your initial impression.
Of course, sometimes people won’t tell you what’s going on before the call because they want you to be caught flat-footed and mumble out something like “I guess that’s okay,” at which point they can start telling everyone they spoke to a lawyer about it and were given a stamp of approval. It’s a chance you take. You can give a person all the qualifications in the world, but you can’t monitor everything that comes out of someone’s mouth.
Gary J. Ross founded Jackson Ross PLLC in 2013 after several years in Biglaw and the federal government. Gary handles corporate and securities law matters for venture capital funds, startups, and other large and small businesses, as well as investors in each. You can reach Gary by email at [email protected]
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