Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Hostage to One's Clients or to One's Firm

Law firm clients can be too large. King and Spalding's refusal to go forward with the DOMA defence is a large case in point.

According to the WSJ, the "likely story here is that King and Spalding began to fear a political backlash after activists at the Human Rights Campaign launched a campaign to 'educate' (read: intimidate) the firm's clients about 'King and Spalding's decision to promote discrimination.' Clients include Coca-Cola and other Fortune 500 giants that prefer to avoid hot-button social issues."

In running our little firm, we are threatened economically on both sides of the client-scale spectrum. We worry about taking clients that are too small, even though the circumstances of their cases may be compelling. These kinds of clients simply cannot afford to pay us what we need to be paid reasonably to deliver legal services of the quality we seek to deliver. We will take small cases now and then, but too many of them will run us into the ground.

At the other end of the spectrum are clients with the big cases that could shower us with money. But they threaten to soak up too much of us. If we ramp up for them, what do we do when the case is over? We turn to our other clients, clients whom we may have neglected to deal with the large case, and find that they have left us. There is, then, a sweet spot for our practice. It is dynamic and changing all the time. But the cases in our sweet spot keep us healthy and growing and still able to do good work. Turning down cases that are too large or too small for us is a key to success.

What also keeps us healthy is having the economic ability to fire a client or to let one go when that client is not heeding our advice or is using us for ends that simply are not compatible with the way we see things. It is, of course, much easier to see such a client walk out the front door when we have plenty of other clients who provide us good and satisfying work.

So now we see that the venerable King and Spalding has large, think-alike clients, clients who depend on being all things to all the people in the market place, clients who can't stand the heat of the anti-DOMA lobby. Client selection and retention for K&S is no different than it is for any of us, large or small. K&S finds itself in the position of being too dependent on these sort of clients. The firm therefore bends.

Individual lawyers in such firms don't have to bend. If they are prepared to walk out the front door, then they can do that if firm policy is not compatible with their own values. And lawyers in firms should always be prepared to take that walk. In the K&S case, the attorney in question in fact has done that. Good for him. But not all attorneys in big firms are prepared to walk out: they have not developed a client base of any sort; they are so in debt and otherwise over committed that they must have the steady paycheck; or their skills have become so specialized with regard to the "big clients" that they are not useful on the outside or those skills are simply obsolete.

More on the K&S case here at Instapundit.

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