Understanding client expectations

I’m here on week two of Shearman & Sterling’s vacation scheme and the focus is on understanding client needs. There is, however, a unique twist: we are given the opportunity to understand the nature of the client-lawyer relationship from a client directly, as well as from the lawyers.

Leigh Hoolihan, General Counsel for GE Corporate Finance Bank, kindly took the time to explain to us what GE expects of its external law firm advisers. Not only are reputation and legal expertise key factors, the availability and choice of partners and associates, price and willingness to provide imaginative fee structures, and expertise in the client’s market are also vital. Going beyond these expectations, Leigh discussed how an individual lawyer can stand out for their availability, reliability and reputation. Crucially, Leigh highlighted that often GE will be looking to go into a business relationship with another company, being represented by other lawyers; so if the lawyers on both sides disagree, an unwanted adversarial relationship will develop. She pointed out that this is best avoided, as the lawyer’s job is to represent the best interests of the client, not to fight their own battles. Leigh also gave us more general useful career tips, making for an interesting and thought provoking presentation.

The next day, our ability to impress a client was put to the test, in the form of a client pitch. At the start of the scheme we had been put into teams and given a briefing on a fictitious deal for an imaginary client. We were asked to produce a group presentation to convince the client that Shearman & Sterling was the law firm for the job. Having completed our research and come up with several ideas, Leigh’s presentation was a useful reminder of one thing: no matter how fantastic Shearman & Sterling is, the focus had to remain on the needs of the client. And the reminder came just in time, giving us the chance to present our research in a way that focused on the client rather than ourselves.

Leigh’s presentation was also a helpful reminder that law is a people profession. It is about relationship building. Having always regarded the client as slightly out-of-reach, meeting Leigh brought the welcome realisation that clients are looking for someone they can get along with. It is not about impressing them with knowledge of intricate legal developments, but rather it is about being able to maximise their best interests, which for business purposes may often mean compromise. It is a juggling act to balance relationships with the client, their in-house legal counsel, the opposing side, and within the team of lawyers itself. But it is an integral part of a successful lawyer’s job.

The client presentation is an excellent example of Shearman & Sterling’s skills-based learning, where presentations are not just about providing a wealth of information but are about assisting their lawyers to reach their fullest potential. The communication and relationship-building skills Leigh discussed are useful in so many situations, including as part of a vacation scheme. This was a lesson that we could all take forward into our future careers.