The Language of Clients and Lawyers

Clients and some lawyers (i.e., the ones I try not to be like) seem to speak a different language.  This is especially true when clients describe their legal needs and lawyers describe their expertise and experience.  As a client, you need to make sure you get past the semantics and choose the right legal counsel.  As a lawyer, it’s pretty simple – speak in business terms, not bar association terms.

Assume a client needs a lawyer to assist in forming a new company, raising money, building a manufacturing facility in the U.S., and acquiring an overseas competitor.  That’s how most business people would speak, and how I would describe my legal expertise if I were seeking to work with this client.  When the client asks prospective lawyers what they do, however, the client may hear things like, “I practice ‘corporate law’ with a focus on ‘international M&A,’ ‘corporate finance’ and ‘securities.’ Is this the right lawyer for this client or not?  The answer is – you don’t know unless the lawyer learns how to speak the client’s language – that is, the language of this particular client and this particular business/industry.  And if that is too challenging for the lawyer to figure out, then he or she is not the right lawyer for this client/deal.

Interestingly, from the above descriptions, it’s likely that the lawyer has the needed skills and experience.  In fact, what the lawyer was probably trying to tell the client can be paraphrased (into the language spoken by business people rather than legalese) as “I help organize businesses (i.e., corporate law), and assist them both in the U.S. and overseas (i.e., international law) in raising money through debt and equity (i.e., corporate finance and securities), and selling and purchasing businesses (i.e., M&A).    

As a prospective client, I want the lawyer who describes himself in the second way, rather than the first, because I’m not talking about law school, I’m talking about my business – and in business, you need a lawyer who thinks like a business person. What better way is there to tell this than listening to how a lawyer describes him or herself?

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