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Don't Blow the Dream Date

Vivia Chen

August 2, 2011

Goldfishcatch You finally got facetime: a coveted meeting with the general counsel of a company you're dying to reel in as a client. But before you start fantasizing about the legal fees that will gush your way and that second home in Amagansett or Kauai, are you sure you know how to impress the client at that first meeting?

There's no shortage of advice about wining, dining, golfing, and schmoozing your way to a client's heart. A lot of that comes from career coaches or lawyers at firms. But what do real live clients have to say?

Nino Cusimano (below), the general counsel of Telecom Italia, writes candidly about what works--and doesn't--in Corporate Counsel magazine. He says that he's often shocked at how lawyers flub the first meeting and blow their chance at getting business. "I am often left with the impression that close to zero preparation time has been put into the [initial] meeting," he writes in CC. "Time after time, I find myself thinking, 'What a wasted opportunity these meetings can be.'"

  To help you snatch that dream client (and maybe save a GC from enduring an excruciating pitch), Cusimano offers a helpful checklist of the dos and don'ts of the pitch. Here's a summary of what he writes in CC.

Antonino_Cusimano2 Contact the GC--not the GC's boss. To start the ball rolling, "send a personal e-mail to me directly, or call. Writing to my boss is not a good idea."

Research the client. Incredibly, says Cusimano, aspiring legal providers often show only the most rudimentary familiarity with his company, "which basically means no familiarity." He suggests a crash course on the company's filings, corporate governance policies, management, products, and market. "Research our interests, the current focus agenda for the legal department, all in a few easy clicks. Google us and read about the major litigations we are engaged in."

Disclose potential conflicts now. "Tell me up front if you act for one of my competitors. Up front means: right away, as we sit down to talk." He adds, "Let us decide if [the conflicts] are material. I have been very impressed with two firms that openly and voluntarily put this out on the table; it said a lot about the firms' integrity."

Be up-front about fees. "We will describe to you our legal-vendor rating process. I will look for constructive comments on it. Be frank. I would be happy to know what sorts of innovative fee structures you're using with clients—a few examples will come in handy."

Be picky about who's on your pitch team. The initial cast is "far more important than you might think." Cusimano adds that size isn't everything: "I am very impressed with those who bring the right mix and still manage to bring three or fewer people. If you staff the first meeting right, I will be inclined to think you do the same with legal matters."

Describe the firm's practice--but don't be tedious. Be sure there's a "structure" to the presentation. "Be pertinent—talk to me about stuff that matters. Using past experience is preferred, as long as it doesn't imply reviewing excruciating details about your case. Big-picture is enough."

Throw in a freebie. "This is the part where I ask you to share with me that nugget," says Cusimano. That might be a tidbit about a good compliance practice at another company, enforcement action trends, relevant cases, or experts. "Good outside counsel have such a privileged viewpoint that one or two of these tips can be a massive treasure for general counsel. Make sure you collect a few of those precious examples, and be ready to impress us."

Don't trash your competitors. "There are ways to convey the strong viewpoints you may have about the competition that can be very effective and yet won't embarrass you or the firm. Be diplomatic."

Ask questions. "Be sure to ask for our views, and show us that you can listen to the answers."

Be focused. "Some of the best-organized and -conducted first meetings in which I have participated have been with diverse, smaller, leaner, and laser-focused firms."

Finally, Cusimano says "pack your best sense of humor." I take that to mean that you shouldn't load your team with a bunch of aggressive sales types and nerds. Don't forget to bring a charmer.


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Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at [email protected].

Photo: Fotolia


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What a great read- fabulous topic and insightful!

Nice post and wise words. When I was in-house I was constantly amazed by how poor many lawyers were at selling. If I could only give one tip, it would be listen more, speak less.

I wrote a bit more about my experience here: http://intelligentchallenge.wordpress.com/2011/01/09/top-5-sales-fails-for-lawyers/

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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