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A case for refocusing young lawyers' goals

It's training that emphasizes business-development skills.

"In our world, the client is king, and the client's needs come first," said John F. Smith III. "It's easy for a young lawyer to fall into the belief that the person he is working for is another lawyer . . . and lose sight of the fact that at the end of this line is a real live person or institution."
"In our world, the client is king, and the client's needs come first," said John F. Smith III. "It's easy for a young lawyer to fall into the belief that the person he is working for is another lawyer . . . and lose sight of the fact that at the end of this line is a real live person or institution."Read moreMICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer

John F. Smith III is a senior litigator at Reed Smith L.L.P., of Philadelphia, who served for 11 years on the firm's executive committee and now, in addition to representing clients, is deeply involved in programs aimed at sharpening the business-development skills of young lawyers.

Law firms for years had given such training short shrift, relying on a relative handful of relationship partners to generate work. Younger associates typically had little idea where the work came from, or what firms had to do to get it. Smith, who serves on the boards of a number of locally prominent institutions, says he is trying to change that by showing younger lawyers more of the business side of the law firm.

Question: What is it that you tell people to do?

Answer: Well, first of all, young lawyers come to us well-schooled in cases and legal techniques, which is wonderful. That's our stock-in-trade. But they don't have a very good sense of the client-service business, and that we are, like many other business organizations, obliged to charge for our services and deliver value for our services. So a great deal of what we try to do very early in a young lawyer's career is at least acquaint her or him with some of those realities that inform how we do our work.

Q: So, what are those realities?

A: In our world, the client is king, and the client's needs come first.

Q: But isn't that just common sense? Wouldn't anybody who's working for someone else come to that conclusion a priori? Why do you have to teach somebody that?

A: Well, you know, certainly in a large-firm environment, it's easy for a young lawyer to fall into the belief that the person he is working for is another lawyer, a partner or a senior associate, and lose sight of the fact that at the end of this line is a real live person or institution, and it has goals, and we are in the business of trying to help that client, in a lawful and creative way, achieve its goals.

Q: Describe some of the practical steps that the firm is taking to inculcate business-development skills in young lawyers.

A: We try to acculturate them to this notion that we are clearly in business, and that they're not just researchers, they're not just writers of briefs or preparers of contracts. This is all being done for a purpose. It gets back to this notion that we are in the client-service business. And that is a mind-set that, frankly, they don't come out of law school with.

Q: But what is the practical side of this?

A: We are experimenting with a pilot program in our New York office, even as we speak, which has the relatively flat title of client-development training. But it starts with real RFPs (requests for proposals) that a client or a prospective client may have issued. Or with the announced expression of intention by a client that it wants to know what services our firm might be able to provide in a different part of the country.

And the goal is to say, "This is not a drill, this is really something that the firm wants to do." And we would like you to assist us in preparing the response to the RFP.

We need you to canvass the capabilities that we have in the following areas. Go online. Call the practice group leaders. And their work finds its way into the responses that we give.

Q: What is the single most important thing a lawyer can do to persuade a client to give him or her work.

A: Well, I think it's a truism that before you can sell somebody on the idea that they should give you legal work, you'd better have some substance. There'd better be some "there" there. And, ultimately, clients hire great lawyers, they don't hire great salesmen. So job one is to become a very, very good lawyer. And it's not easy. I think there are lots of people who are good at taking LSATs, good at getting through law school. But, ultimately, you are in the business of serving clients' interests.

Q: What are the best techniques for communicating with clients?

A: Very few of our clients have gone to law school. But they need to understand what this is all about. And if we approach them in the same way that we might approach a contracts class in law school, we'll quickly lose them. They just won't appreciate what we're trying to do. So translating it into terms that they can understand is a key part of what we do.

Q: There are some very competent people who are unable to convey that. How do you overcome that problem?

A: Well, it's true that some people are better presenters than other people. But I've found that the really critical thing is to be true to your own talent. So, there are some people who are just very, very good in the presentation that they make. They're instantly likable. Some people don't have that amiable quality about them.

But they may have established themselves as the expert when it comes to a merger transaction. And they are so redolent of knowledge in that subject that a client, particularly a hard-nosed corporate client who just wants a terrific result, will not be so put off by the manner and be much more impressed by the substance.

So it's like everything else. If you are very good at being yourself, chances are you'll be more successful than by trying to be good at being somebody else.

Q: Small to midsize firms are getting assignments that once went to larger firms because they offer lower hourly rates and in many cases offer high-quality representation. Is the big-firm model obsolete?

A: I think that, to the extent that small and medium firms have been entrepreneurial, it's to their credit. And if the large firms want to continue to enjoy the success that they have, they have to be equally entrepreneurial, equally close to their clients, and their hearing aids have to be turned up. It's healthy competition. I certainly don't think that the big law firm is going out of style. And we feel grateful to have the size and the scope of expertise that resides at Reed Smith.

Q: There's a lot of hope early on in this recession that one of the saving graces for law firms would be litigation. Has that panned out?

A: Well, I think the testimony of not only the practicing lawyers here in Philadelphia, but I guess also the bench, is that some kinds of litigation are down. Certainly, for a long time, the business community has been anxious to avoid unnecessary expenditures. And there are lots of ways to resolve disputes, short of marching into court.

Q: You had mentioned earlier that it is important for lawyers to listen to their clients. What are your clients saying to you?

A: My personal clients are saying, "Thank you, because you're doing a great job for us."

John F. Smith III

Raised in: Irvington-on-

Hudson, N.Y.

Resides: Villanova.

Family: Married to Susan Brown Smith, three sons.

Undergraduate: Princeton University.

Law school: Yale.

Military service: 31/2 years in the Navy, including one year as an officer for small-boat operations in the Mekong Delta region of South Vietnam.

Civic activities: Chair for the last four years of the International House in Philadelphia, named chair of the board of directors of the Economy League in Philadelphia in January.

Recreation: Member of the Orpheus Club, oldest men's singing group in the country.