How to balance the needs of clients and colleagues

When no one will leave you alone
Illustration of a person with many demands coming toward them via hands holding a clock, tablet and papers to sign.
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In law, most workdays begin with a constant stream of requests. One client has just been hit with a lawsuit, a senior partner needs an opinion letter and another client wants you to send an angry email to opposing counsel. They all see their demand as urgent. And, unfortunately, none of them will be particularlymoved by the needs of the other clients or lawyers. To make everyone happy, you might try to solve all of the problems at the same time. But that’s not possible. You’ll end up doing a mediocre job for everyone.

So what should you do? Learn from an industry that’s mastered the art of client management. Before law school, I waited a lot of tables at a lot of restaurants. Many of you have probably waited tables at some point in your life. If not, I expect that you have at least eaten at a restaurant, so I’ll ask you to draw upon that experience while I take you through this metaphor.

Here’s the scenario: You are a waiter at the start of your shift. At the exact same moment, diners take a seat at three tables in your section. The first table is a boisterous group celebrating a birthday. The second is a couple of friends catching up on old times. And the third is a dour-looking couple who advise they need to leave early because they are catching a show. All of them want prompt and pleasant service. None of them care about the needs of the other tables. And they certainly don’t want to be ignored while another table gets attended to twice in a row.

As a waiter, you need to manage the different tables with some thought. What each diner wants, above all, is to be acknowledged. For the party table, get them water while they settle. Take a prompt drink order from the old friends. Then get the dour couple their menus and take their dinner order right away. You can buy time this way. The big party will take more time to get organized. The old friends just want to drink and chat before ordering. The dour couple need to know that their order is in before the party table.

The same management strategy works in law. If a client is staring down a surprise statement of claim, that likely needs immediate attention. But before you address that dilemma, let the senior partner know you’ll tackle the opinion letter later in the day. As for the client who wants you to berate opposing counsel? Tell that person it can wait until tomorrow — knowing that, by then, the client will likely have calmed down. You’ve now handled your workload and let everyone know where their problem sits in the queue. Most importantly, no one is unhappy.

By the way, that’s not the only useful parallel between lawyering and waiting tables. At the end of a meal, a waiter will check in on each diner’s satisfaction. (“Did you enjoy your meal?”) At the office, ask if a client or colleague has any feedback on the memo. That way you can ensure repeat customers.

I could keep going with the metaphor, but I hope you get the point. As lawyers, we all have customers to serve, so we need to be aware of their needs and manage their respective timelines. That’s the key to Michelin star-level service.

Peter Henein is a partner at Waddell Phillips PC. His practice focuses on commercial litigation, intellectual property and product liability disputes.

This story is from our Fall 2022 Issue.

Illustration: Shutterstock.