The Representation Of Clients Now Requires That Lawyers Act Less Lawyerly

THE FUTURE LAWYER IS BUSINESS MINDED AND A NETWORKER

After 22 years of practicing law, you would think I would be extremely satisfied with my legal skill set, extensive knowledge, and legal problem-solving ability.  All of the legal work that I have done has provided me with the ability to look at a client’s issue, understand the problem, structure the solution, and implement a legal plan almost instantaneously.  I feel like I can represent anybody at a high level.

The Journey Of Building A Legal Practice

After 7 years as a lawyer, I looked at one of my old law school friends and told him that despite getting great results for my clients I really do not feel like I am a sophisticated lawyer.  I was not meeting my own expectations.  I truly believe that it took 12 years for me even to say that I practiced my trade to my level of satisfaction.  Suddenly, at year 15, I could honestly say that I understood how to manage a practice at a high level and really service my clients.

Finally, after year 20, I had no sense of apprehension and felt that I had seen almost everything in the practice areas that we focus in.  And when I did see something novel, I knew how to find the answer to the issue as my network had grown and my resources and ability to analyze issues quickly led me to the answer.

Ah.  A perfect world.  The next 20 years of practicing law would be far easier.

Why Take The Easy Route? 

So, now that all of the hard work and pain of learning how to practice law efficiently and effectively has been achieved, what did I decide to do?

Well, I decide to practice law less and concentrate on the growth of Fornaro Law, networking, innovation, technology, and growing as a legal entrepreneur.  I of course would not have had this opportunity but for our fantastic team of lawyers and staff.  As an aside, I am very proud of their legal and business sense and customer attention.  They are effective communicators and professional.  They are simply fantastic.

But I digress.

What was I talking about?

Oh yes.  My non-sensical decision to shift the focus of my world from simply practicing law.

Why would I not just practice my craft and continue to represent clients in the same manner as I have done for years?

Because there is an even better and more fulfilling way.

Be Business Minded And A Networker And The Interesting Clients Will Follow

For a long period of time, I followed the adage that lawyers should handle the legal side of a transaction and avoid the business side of the transaction.  Lawyers are trained to leave the business side of the transaction to the client.

I finally said “Hogwash.”  I have seen so many deals in my legal career, have run my own businesses outside of the law and learned things from my strategic partners over the years.

Why in the world should I avoid sharing that knowledge with clients?

Clients know their business, but attorneys know about many businesses.  We have seen where business in almost every business have failed and where they have succeeded.  Why not speak to that knowledge and consult?  If a client is not interested in absorbing knowledge or listening to business advice, then they are not good business people and to be perfectly honest not good clients.  Work with those that appreciate and value all of your advice, not just some of it.

Any good attorney can follow the lead of their client and remain quiet about what he or she sees.  Any good attorney can issue solid legal advice.  However, only a small minority of attorneys can open their client’s eyes to business mistakes and to look into the business deal to make certain that the client is making good decisions from both perspectives.

If You Are An Entrepreneur, Act Like One

As our firm decided to switch into the world of representing small to mid-size businesses and entrepreneurs, we suddenly realized that we were in fact entrepreneurs ourselves.  The concept of capital raising, venture capital, private equity, pitch decks, business plans, due diligence, connecting, private placement, corporate structuring and restructuring and exit strategy was our sweet spot.

As a result, we have grown and so have our clients.  Our clients have different needs now.  We represent a lot of clients that normally go to larger firms for representation.  They now come to us, because Fornaro Law has shifted from the mindset that lawyers only should practice law.

Suddenly, I feel fulfilled.  It happened in such a short period of time and only because I started providing advice to my clients based on my instinct as an entrepreneur.  I just told my wife the other day:  What have I been waiting for?

Now every day I go into the office with such a level of excitement and expectation for what the day will bring.

Our Connections and Network Has Extreme Value To Everyone Involved

As we learned to network from 2010 through 2017, I was very proud of the people that I met and the connections that I made and the people that I helped.  I enjoyed it immensely as I was most concerned about helping others advance.

However, in April, 2017, my father was at the annual Fornaro Law open house for our clients and strategic partners.  I was telling him how excited I was to witness my clients, strategic partners, friends and family interacting at such a high level.  I was proud of the fact that we had assembled manufacturing, banking, trucking, technology, commercial real estate, corporate clients, crypto clients and people in almost every industry.

He looked at me and said, “How does this event help you?”  It was a great and important question as I never really thought about it.

So, after I thought about it for a while,  I told him it has a residual effect for the firm.   It shows that we can help almost everyone because there is always someone in our network that can help them.  It helps Fornaro Law because our clients know that they can trust us.  It shows that Fornaro Law is trusted by many.  It shows that we have value.

However, even after the discussion, it took me two years (as our next event approaches on April 18), to understand and realize the full extent of the value of our network.  We did not realize what we were and are doing for clients on a daily basis and what they are doing for us.  I did not understand the significance of the value that we were adding.  But more importantly, I did not realize how it really helps us.  As we grow with our clients, we see that they are now helping us grow our own verticals.

Our clients and strategic partners are actually helping us learn to stretch ourselves.

The Value Of Understanding The Mind Of An Entrepreneur And The Perspective Of Our Clients

The other day one of our clients was behind on their bill because they were in the middle of a capital raise.  Our bookkeepers indicated that we should withdraw.   However, because I am so intimately familiar as to what my client was doing from a business perspective, it would be a disservice to everything I believe sacred to abandon a client when they need me the most.  It is at the time that the day is darkest for our clients that they need us the most.  I reminded them that this particular client had sent us so many other quality clients and how they helped us advance in the world of venture capital.  The education I received and the bond that had been created means more than waiting for money.

Of course, we do not work for free and expect prompt payment from clients.  However, we have developed rapport with our clients and an understanding of trust.  A client is not going to avoid paying if they know that they are better off with us as an attorney than us not being their attorney.  We are developing long term relationships built on trust and mutual benefit that has driven our growth.

This is supported by one of my favorite stories.  In 2010, I was sitting having lunch at a small hot dog stand owned by my client.  An older gentleman came in and asked for a hot dog, french fries and a coke.  He indicated that he did not have any money.  My client gave him the food.  I looked puzzled and asked him why he would do that.

My client said, “I do this all of the time.  He will come back and pay me when he has money.  He will always pay me.  Because he knows that if he does not pay, he will not be able to eat when he is hungry and does not have money.”

Wow.  That is the utmost in trust but more importantly when two people are aligned with a similar goal and trust each other, both people are satisfied and advance in the end.

Of all of my interactions, that lesson has stuck with me for nine years.  I have used it to mutual advantage with clients many times.  I have yet to be disappointed.

Never Be Afraid To Disagree With The Client

What I have also learned now is that our clients are not always correct.  Because we know many things that they do not know we do not always agree with their decisions and are not afraid to tell them when we think differently.  Entrepreneurs by their very nature want to do things fast so that they can get to the next step.  We have learned to say no when we do not agree.   If our clients make a misstep that we could have helped avoid, I would feel terrible.  We want our clients to grow.  However, we want them to grow correctly and our advice needs to set them up for success.

We now feel our clients.  We understand the mind of the entrepreneur and business owner and know that they are looking to advance but sometimes do not have the knowledge that we possess.  That helps create a mental partnership of sorts.

On the other hand, we are very conscious that because we are representing very smart and ambitious people, that we are not always right.  The Win/Win comes from the fact that our client relationships are based on trust and nobody is ever right 100% of the time.   We work together to get to the best solution.

As A Former Yes Man, I Am Happy To Report That I Have Learned To Say No

I have to admit that I was formerly a Yes Man (great movie by the way).  I would take clients in no matter what.  I would not always tell them that even though their way to the next step was good, but that there were many alternatives that could potentially be better.

We are not afraid to tell clients that of alternatives and make our representation contingent upon us coming to a meeting of the minds on how the attorney/client relationship should proceed.

This honesty and communication builds trust and I have to say creates a completely different dynamic that attracts some very excellent clients with very bright futures.

Conclusion

With the expectation of the clients today, attorneys need to become more business minded and network focused.  Those that are not will become less relevant to clients that need such guidance.

Do not get me wrong.  I still enjoy the practice of law and enjoy providing clients with professional, clean and useable legal advice that helps them.  I cherish the fact that we have had so many repeat and satisfied clients through providing legal advice.  I like the feeling that we have done everything we could for the client.

However, now I understand that we can do even more for our clients and our decision to become more business minded and to provide our clients with access to our network is a valuable commodity that most firms cannot provide.  That is the simple reason as to why my involvement has shifted from legal worker to advisor.

I continue to handle cases that I find interesting and which my involvement on the legal and business side is necessary and the Fornaro Law team provides a high level of legal representation on a daily basis.

The easy route may have been easy, but this route is much more fun and fulfilling.

By Phil Fornaro

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