Podcast Transcript: “Lawyering from Beyond the Desk” with Pryor Cashman’s Tom Vidal

Topics: Client Relations, Law Firms, Leadership, Podcasts, Talent Development, Thomson Reuters

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Hello, and welcome to the Legal Executive Institute podcast. Today we’re speaking with Tom Vidal, a partner at Pryor Cashman, about the idea of “lawyering beyond the desk”. How getting out from your desk, and engaging with clients can help lawyers with business development and their own career satisfaction. Welcome, Tom.

Tom Vidal: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Legal Executive Institute: We talked about how lawyers can help their clients and satisfy themselves, as lawyers in their career by getting out of the office. What does that involve, and more importantly, how can lawyers convince their managing partners that this outside work really does provide value?

Tom Vidal: First, most of you when we decided to become lawyers did it because we wanted to help people in some way. Whether it means speaking on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves, arguing in court, doing deals, whatever it was, but being part of doing the things clients do to help them achieve the purposes that they have. Take the idea of doing a deal together, being able to actually do the deal. So much of us, and so much of the practice of law is spent sitting in front of our desks actually drafting documents, rather than being with the client, being in the moment with the client, experiencing and helping them achieve the goal that they have, by directly interfacing with them.

We miss a lot of those opportunities. Lawyering beyond the desk as we’re describing it, is a way to get back to some of those things, to actually be aligned with the client in some ways to help them achieve their goals. And a great byproduct of all of that is to help build business for the firm, and be able to do more of the things that we want to do.

What does it involve? It involves literally being beyond your desk. Whether that means going out doing speaking events, meeting with clients at mixers and other types of places, writing articles to actually be in front of clients and potential clients. Companies that need that kind of help that we can provide in a way that gets us beyond just drafting indemnity provisions in a deal.

Legal Executive Institute: Again, how to you get your managing partners or your immediate supervisor to see that there’s value in you being away from the desk, in this way?

Tom Vidal: There’s one thing I think, just the basic economics is, each individual lawyer, billing their minimum billable hours at their regular billable hour rate, can generate X dollars. An attorney who can go out, meet with clients, get to know clients, build those relationships with clients, will start to have a multiplier effect, where they’re bring in more work than they can do themselves.

If the managing partner is only looking at, this lawyer X, is bringing in 2,000 hours of work, the game is lost. When the managing partner understands that a lawyer who goes out and meets with people is filling his or her 2,000 hours, plus bringing in another 2,000 hours, and another 2,000 hours, and another 2,000 hours. You start to realize that the only way to expand the firm, to grow, to increase the business of the firm, is to make sure that the attorneys, especially those that have an interest and aptitude for it, are out meeting with clients, because that’s how you multiply the work.

Legal Executive Institute: Right, right. Much of what you talked about, the speaking engagements, the writing engagements, and the interfaces with the clients, it does show that you’re showing to the client that you’re focusing on them, something beyond just the legal tasks at hand, that you do at your desk, that you mentioned. Is there a certain skillset that’s important to develop to get yourself out of your desk, and be more engaged?

Tom Vidal: I think there’s two things at the bottom. One, having a genuine enjoyment and like for being around people. I think most of us have that, at the core. We’d much rather be having a conversation at a cocktail party than sitting at a desk. The other part that goes with that I think, is the permission that you have to give yourself to be able to do that, and realize that there is value to it. It’s not just idle chatter. There’s a purpose. The purpose isn’t always just your own pecuniary gain — “I’m going to have a new client out of it” — but the idea of being able to actually help people. I see this often. I’m going to use cocktail parties as an example, but we’ll talk about some of the other things as well.

When you’re out with people, you tell people you’re an attorney. They happen to be working on some deal or there’s a dispute that’s going on, they invariably ask questions. What can I do? How do I do this? There’s always the lawyer self-defense. “I can’t tell you all of this. I can’t give you advice, I’m not your lawyer.” But, we are there and we can speak into people’s lives. We can speak into the situation that they have, which may result in an engagement today. It may result in an engagement years from now. It may not result in an engagement at all from that client. Maybe it results in a referral or something else like that, but we’re doing the thing that we do. We’re helping people out and it’s opening doors for other things.

I think, like I said, at the heart, most of us would like to do those things. I think some people feel a little bit restrained for whatever reason. Enjoying people and being able to have that freedom to know that what you’re doing is valuable, is important.

Legal Executive Institute: I know a lot of people when they talk about business development in the industry, in the legal industry, talk about achieving the status of a trusted advisor to a client, rather than being kind of a transactional partner. They want to become a trusted advisor. Someone the client looks to for beyond the day-to-day legal tasks. Is that an end goal of what you’re talking about? Is that trusted advisor status an important level to achieve?

Tom Vidal: I think it is absolutely crucial to achieve. Beyond the buzz words, I’ll tell you what it means to me, and then explain why. First of all, for me, talking to the managing partner, the trusted advisor concept or rubric is one of the best ways to generate business, because it is far easier — as any business developer expert will ever say — to get more work from existing clients, than to convince a new client to bring work your way. Having a strong relationship with your client is probably the best way to generate more work, and insure that it continues on.

Being of a trusted advisor status, you are a vital component of the client and their business. One of the best examples is a small film studio client that I have, that I do a lot of work for, whether it’s dispute resolution, advice and counsel, drafting deals and things like that. When they have their annual holiday party, I get invited to that party. I am part of that company. They call me when any issue comes up. I’ll get calls from these guys anytime a day. Sometimes they’ll call me at six or seven at night, and say, “Hey, I have a quick question for you. By the way, don’t bill me for this question.” It’s always invariably I would otherwise bill and should bill for, but that’s the kind of relationship that we have.

The bottom line, is having a relationship with a client where they see you as part of the team, and that trusted advisor status happens when… Well, first of all, it built over time. It’s built when a client sees that you care more about their business and you put them first. Yes, they know you need to earn a living. They know you need to bill your time, and get paid for your time, but they know at the end of the day, you care about them and what they’re trying to accomplish. That’s the best way to establish that relationship.

Legal Executive Institute: Right, right. Interestingly, you brought up the idea of billing, several times in that response. How does becoming a trusted advisor, if that’s the role you strive for, how does that effect billing? How does it change the idea of how you’re billing your client?

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Tom Vidal, of Pryor Cashman

Tom Vidal: There are a lot of times when things happen in a trusted advisor relationship where maybe the client does need some help with something. “Hey, we’re way over our legal budget this year, but we need a little help on this. What can you do for us?” Rather than a situation where you have one client, and one for the billing, you can look at a client where you have a widespread bunch of work for them, and say, look we might take a little bit of a haircut here, because we’re going to give you a bigger discount than maybe we wanted, or maybe we won’t charge for this. But, we’re going to make up for that and more, because we’re getting more work from this division. We’re doing more work over here. We’ve got next year, and the next 15, 25, however many years of working for the client.

You have to start looking at the big picture. It’s not that complicated.

Legal Executive Institute: Right. Finally, a lot of this, again, the idea of lawyering beyond the desk and engaging your clients, you said pays the benefit of giving the lawyer himself, some satisfaction, and kind of giving them the solid grounding in the career, in the legal profession that they envisioned.

Tom Vidal: One of the things that’s challenging for us to do as lawyers is, we’re not like Congress where you can pass some legislation and change a whole swath of problems, in one fell swoop, or create them, depending on whose side you’re looking at. We deal with clients on, a one client, one matter, one small thing at a time. I think being able to speak into the client’s needs, at a greater level, helps to be able to resolve sometimes, wider swaths of problems, and to address things that are more broad. Some of the things like, the strategy things that a company is dealing with. Rather than, “Tom, how do I do X?” You’re now being asked, “Tom, should I do X? Why should I do it? If we did want to do it, what would it look like? What are the risks? What are the things we want to avoid? What are the potential advantages?”

You get to be more involved in the companies’ and clients’ lives, at a way that’s far greater than, well, I drafted this cool 55-page document that enables them to buy some piece of some other company, or avoid a dispute, whatever the issue might be.

I think it is much more satisfying, at least for me, to be able to be involved with the client at a much higher level, while still being able to do the stuff that we do, obviously. We still have to do the transactions, resolve the disputes, and those kinds of things. We still have to get the results for the client. Being able to be… have a seat at the table, where important decisions are being made, that make a difference to your clients, help your clients sleep better at night. Those things are, to me, and I think to a lot of us, a lot more meaningful.

Legal Executive Institute: Thank you, Tom.

Tom Vidal: You’re welcome. Thank you very much. Appreciated the opportunity.

We’ve been speaking to Tom Vidal, a partner at Pryor Cashman, about the idea of lawyering beyond the desk. How getting up from your desk can help you with engaging your clients, business development, and your own career satisfaction. Join us again for more podcasts on the Legal Executive Institute, or check out our website at www.legalexecutiveinstitute.com.