An overlooked source of business: Your opponents

Issue January/February 2017 By John O. Cunnigham

Over the years, a number of highly successful attorneys have provided me with anecdotes about landing key clients as a result of recommendations from opposing counsel. Renowned advocates have even described instances to me when a new client hired them directly after witnessing their advocacy for an opponent or competitor.

Little has been written about this phenomenon, but it makes intuitive sense. Lawyers with professional conflicts who need to make referrals, advocates who need to associate with local counsel in a provincial town, and others who need to go outside of their own firms to find a lawyer are likely to consider an advocate who has impressed them as a professional adversary. Many clients similarly are inclined to seek the services of someone who has performed well as an opponent.

In fact, several chief legal officers have told me that they've hired lawyers who initially caught their attention on the other side of a bargaining table or courtroom. When I was a general counsel, I too hired lawyers who had impressed me as opponents, and I was hired by a CEO who sat on the opposite side of a table from me. I know of other chief legal officers who were hired after impressing their opponents as well.

Sitting on the other side of a negotiation or case provides an excellent perch from which to gauge an opposing advocate's knowledge of the law, ability to think quickly, communicate clearly and come up with win-win solutions. That same perch facilitates assessment of how responsive, organized and diligent opposing advocates are, and those are all key factors in hiring or referral decisions.

Conversely, it is obvious if an opponent is poorly qualified or ill-mannered. In today's hyper-competitive world, laced with movie and television caricatures of the law that accentuate aggressive and dramatic clashes, combative behavior can seem acceptable or even effective, but it is ultimately costly.

I know by reputation a commercial litigator in another jurisdiction who thrived for a full generation, selling himself as a razor sharp sword for slicing up opponents, and winning over commonplace clients who thought of lawyers only as weapons of conflict.

He was smart, extremely aggressive, threw lots of sharp elbows and got more than his share of "wins," though most were costly. For a while he earned a good number of client referrals. But his reputation within the bar did not earn him any praise, and many once satisfied clients eventually learned that ruthless victories had long-tail consequences. As a result, the one-time big-ticket lawyer eventually saw his business dry up, and his firm dissolved.

Professional behavior and civility toward opponents are particularly important in the age of social media, when there are countless ways for reputations to spread via clients, employees and even opponents. Online services for rating lawyers are proliferating, and it is hard to monitor all of them, even with internet reputation monitors that locate people with axes to grind.

The fact is that every time you represent a client you are making a statement about your brand to your opponents and all who are watching. Your behavior is an advertisement for who you are and how you achieve results, which is particularly important to organizations that hire lawyers not just to be advocates, but ambassadors for their own brands. Legal officers in organizations that are frequently in the public eye and dependent on public image - such as non-profits, government agencies, and professional sports, entertainment or hospitality enterprises - have told me that an outside counsel's behavior is as important to them as his or her results.

For example, I know a successful lawyer who once obtained a well-known sports club client by referral from a legal assistant that sat opposite of him in a number of deals. She was reportedly impressed with his truthfulness, cooperative nature and grace, as much as his legal acumen, causing her to mention his name favorably to her brother-in-law, the CEO of the club.

Thus, the way we treat an opponent's paralegals, secretaries and support staff are also advertisements for our brands, for better for worse. If you work well with someone on the other side of the table, you just might land a prized client through referral or direct hire. But if you play games with someone on the other side of the table just to gain a questionable edge, you just might find that it damages your brand, and there is nowhere you can go to buy your reputation back.

John O. Cunningham is a writer, consultant and public speaker. As a lawyer, he served as General Counsel to a publicly traded company and to a privately-held subsidiary of a Fortune 100 company. For more information about his work in the fields of legal service, marketing, communications, and management, check out his website and blog at https://johnocunningham.wordpress.com.

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