I just spent a couple of minutes looking for the telephone number of someone who sent me an email.  No big deal, except that if it is your client’s time spent looking for your number, it is a big deal.  If you do something that wastes your client’s time, it suggests you have no idea how wasted second and minutes can quickly add up.  Don’t be the cause of the addition.  So here are a couple of quick tips:

  1. Include your phone number on every email.
  2. Think about your use of email real estate. If the case is Smith v. ABC, Inc. and you’re corresponding with an inhouse lawyer at ABC, he or she will know the case involves the company.  Think this doesn’t make a difference? Look at a client’s email in-box on a mobile device.  If you have to open an email to find out whether it is important, you’ve just wasted time.  Time that adds up.
  3. After the name of the matter, let the reader know if it is time sensitive. In other words, is your matter so important they have to look right then instead of focusing on other matters?  Or can your matter wait?
  4. Are you asking the reader to do something? Specify that in the re line of the email.  For example: Smith: URGENT: Signature needed.
  5. Learn the importance of BLUF—Bottom Line Up Front. Give your client the choice to read the detail or ignore it. Sometimes, a client just doesn’t care at that moment and you should not force them to read through the detail to get to the result.

Good email etiquette is easy.  It just requires you to put yourself in your client’s shoes for a minute.


Houston Invite

If you want to learn how a prevention program can help a law department add value to its company (with metrics), join us in Houston on October 28 at 5:30.  Jeff Carr will present his experience with prevention and the value it creates for law departments and their companies. Details can be found at www.valoremlaw.com.  Remember to RSVP–seats are limited and going fast!

If you can’t join us in Houston, we will be discussing prevention programs in Chicago (November 12) and Palo Alto (November 17).  Details at the Valorem web site (above).


UPDATE:  Because of the storms that battered the Houston area over the weekend and the resulting flooding, we are postponing this event.  A new date and time will be posted shortly.



50% of Americans do not get second opinions for important medical diagnoses.

30% of the time the second opinion causes changes in the diagnosis or treatment.

Do the math.

I don’t know the data on what percentage of in-house lawyers get second opinions about a strategy.  But I bet it’s pretty darn small.  I  have only rarely heard of it being done.

Fresh eyes are often the best eyes.  People trying to solve a problem often lock-in on a strategy and play favorites with it. Fresh eyes can provide needed perspective.

Want an example?  When a company tries a product liability case, the first of many cases to be addressed, who evaluates the trial?  People involved or from the trial firm are not going to cast a critical eye on things if that is the deserved outcome.  And why incur the cost?  Because it is critical to get better in future cases.  Trial performances should be shredded and rebuilt constantly, but they rarely are.

Sad.  A real missed opportunity.

In Part 1 of this post, I noted how law firms had become so adept at creating “noise” about various topics, focusing on client service and alternative fee arrangements.  In Part 2, I identified 5 questions a General Counsel could ask to help separate signal from noise so she or he would know who is for real and who has ramped-up their marketing efforts to sound like a firm that is for real.  In this final part, I share 5 additional questions that should help separate signal from noise (which is why I start with number 6).

6.     What is the average cost of a deposition taken by your firm?  Not the preparation, just the deposition itself.

There is a lot of ways to go to actually answer this one–the average billing to a client for a deposition, the average length of the deposition (so you could multiply by an hourly rate in your head), or the firm’s actual cost.  I think the fairest one of these, one that everyone should know, is the average of the amounts billed to a client, but knowing any of these is enough to earn a gold star. The betting line is that most outside lawyers do not know any of these.

7.     Can I see three samples of Early Case Assessments?

Don’t ask if the firm does ECAs–of course they do (wink, wink).  You will get noise in response.  If you want signal, ask for three examples.  And if you get three, how close in form do the three look?  If the forms vary more than might be explained by the difference in cases, you have an indication that different people do things differently within the firm.  That may not be disqualifying, but it is worth knowing when someone from the firm talks about “the firm” doing things a certain way.

8.     At the same time, can I see three After Action Assessments and how those were communicated to the client?

Most firms say they do A3s (noise).  Few do (signal).  Those that do A3s will happily share the results, what lessons were learned, how their client reacted and so forth–because they will have experienced the power of structured After Action Assessments.  Everyone else will flounder on this: very few firms have embraced the notion that mistakes happen and provide an opportunity for improvement. I discuss A3s in more detail here.  If A3s are not communicated to clients, or are not done with full client involvement, how is the firm helping the client learn?  Not including a client in the process is the surest sign that a firm’s statement that it “partners” with clients is just more noise.

9.     What is an area where your firm led innovation? Where it was at the front end of change?








10.     Tell me about your approach to project management, process mapping and use of checklists?  Can I see examples?

The noise is “of course we use project management. Of course there is a process. Of course there are checklists.”  Seeing is believing, so ask to see them. When you have them in hand, you have signal.

I hope these questions are helpful.  Law firms are so very good at the quality of their noise that they actually believe it. Sadly, you can either be a victim of the noise or you are forced to take steps to separate the signal from the noise.

I am sitting here pondering a project I asked someone else to do.  I don’t know whether it is done.  It should have been done by now, but I don’t know because I haven’t heard from the person I tasked with the assignment.  I don’t want to have to keep this task in the front of my mind.  I want to forget about it altogether.  But I can’t, because I don’t know that it hasn’t fallen through a crack.  I am frustrated and annoyed.

If this has ever happened to you, put yourself in a client’s position and ask yourself if you should let him or her know that the project has not fallen through the crack.  Attentiveness and responsiveness are hugely important.  I just reminded myself why.

At first, I thought the multitude of thoughts was simply the failure of one’s mind to bring order to the thinking process as a result of too many cocktails.  But I didn’t have that many last night, so maybe I just needed to think harder to bring order to chaos.  Maybe there was a central theme to the chaos of my mind.

Thought 1.  I saw something that reminded me of what remain two of the most popular posts I’ve made since I started writing this blog, After the Mistake andAfter the Mistake Redux.  The central theme is the importance of owning up to mistake and saying you are sorry for it.  Easy to say, hard to do.  I know that from firsthand experience.

Thought 2.  The laughable way celebrities and athletes (and others to be sure) apologize for bad behavior.  "If anyone was offended by my stupid remark [or replace with description of your stupid behavior], then I want to apologize for the fact that your were offended by something I did not mean to be offensive."  You get the drift.  Randy Pausch includes a chapter in one of my favorite books, The Last Lecture, on why a bad apology is worse than no apology at all.

Thought 3.  My friend Dan Hull frequently uses his fantastic blog What About Clients? as a pulpit to teach lessons on the importance of writing well.  I love every such post.

Thought 4.  I am a fan of passion in argument, mainly because that’s how I am.  I never have been able to pull off the "aw shucks, I am just a country lawyer" approach of Jimmy Stewart, or the scholarly, dispassionate Supreme Court advocate.  Think Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind.  I’m no Clarence Darrow, but I live in that neighborhood.

Thought 5.  This one might be the outlier, or the trigger.  Who knows.  But I listened to Roseanne Cash and Bruce Springsteen sing Sea of Heartbreak.  I cried, it was so moving.  "The lights in the harbor don’t shine for me ….on this sea of tears, the sea of heartbreak…"  The way great lyrics evoke feeling is one of life’s great mysteries, at least to me. 

So, how does this come together?  Effective communications, whether written, spoken or sung, have the ability to evoke feeling.  In the case of apologies, they should as well.  If you or your team has screwed something up for a client, follow the approach discussed in my earlier posts on handling mistakes.  But you should feel pain about the mistake, and you darn sure ought to communicate that to your client in a manner that evokes feeling.

Okay, so maybe it was the Bushmills from last night after all.


Continue Reading When you need to, apologize. With feeling!

They (and have you ever, like me, wondered who they are?) say that nature abhors a vacuum.  I was reminded about the wisdom of this gem during a recent deposition.  My witness was testifying about the sale of a company and management’s why management was releasing information to the employees.  As she said, " you can never stop water-cooler conversation, so you’d better be influencing what’s said.

This made me wonder how many law firms have visited their clients to talk about how the firm is responding to the new economic reality, what the new business model will be, and so forth.  Seems like a great excuse for an invaluable conversation.  But that’s just me.


Continue Reading Watercoolers and clients

I received an email yesterday that began "Hi Patrick J."  It caused a flashback to my childhood.  When my mother was angry with me, she called me Patrick J. When she was really ticked off, she called me Patrick John.  And when it was certain she was going to whip my sorry behind, it was all three names, Patrick John Lamb.  I knew what punishment was on the horizon just by what portion of my name she chose to call out.

So I get this email and immediately wonder why my mother is sending me an angry email.  Turns out it was an email selling me something.  Buy now and you get a free toaster, plus a chance to win other cool prizes.  So I started thinking about how I address emails to people I haven’t met yet.  If a person’s name is William, does he go by William, Will, Bill, or something else.  If I write "Dear William" and everyone knows him as Bill (think Bill Clinton), you immediately brand yourself as uninformed, especially if there is information you could find on the web that would tell you he goes by Bill.  My default is this:  if I don’t know the person or haven’t been introduced via a common friend (the 1 degree rule), I use "Mr."  For women, I use "Ms." because I usually don’t know the whether the person is married, kept her maiden name or is one of many women who prefer the neutral "Ms."  I tend to introduce myself as Pat as an indicator that I am comfortable with the informality that using Pat instead of Mr. Lamb or Patrick implies.

That’s my rule of thumb on forms of address.  Anyone have different rules that they follow?

More litigation results from bad drafting that one can possibly imagine.

Excellent writing is a critical component of excellent client service.

My friends at What About Clients have two terrific posts on good writing.  The first reminds us that writing well is hard work.    The second discusses client-centered writing and advances the argument that over-reliance on forms "tends to perpetuate bad legal writing."

WAC? is on the money.

There is a delicate balance to be struck between providing clients the value of not re-inventing the wheel and the benefit of thinking about each problem anew.  But in each case or contract or matter, it is important to discuss that balance with your client.  Sometimes, good enough is good enough.  Sometimes, only the best will do.  The key is that client must be the one to make that decision.

You can’t.  But it’s amazing how people keep trying to ignore that old gorilla.

As I’ve mentioned, I was listening to a panel of General Counsel share some stories last week.  This story was told by one of them.  The took a case to trial.  And got hammered.  Way beyond what trial counsel had predicted as a worst case.  As the GC said, "okay, it happens."  So he’s waiting for a call from the trial lawyer or the relationship partner.  The phone is silent.  So finally after a couple of days, he arranges a meeting with the relationship lawyer.  When the meeting starts, the lawyer looks at the GC and says, "okay, what do you want to discuss?"  Needless to say, the GC was floored.  I think it’s safe to say the relationship didn’t continue as before, though that was not explicitly stated.

The near universal reaction to this story is laughter and disbelief.  But the story is true.  So let’s look for a couple of lessons.  First, does anyone think the GC didn’t find out about the bad result?  After all, don’t lots of companies remain blissfully ignorant  of large verdicts against them?  So the GC then had the delightful task of talking to the CEO without input from their law firm.  Don’t ever let clients hear bad news from someone else.

Second, when summoned, don’t ignore the gorilla.  It’s not like the GC doesn’t know it’s there.  You just look foolish when you ignore the obvious.

Third, nobody can guarantee great results every time.  You don’t look bad by acknowledging  disappointment in the result.  Come ready to work out a plan to fix what happened.

These are the obvious lessons.  There are others, and perhaps people will offer their lessons learned from this example in comments.