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A Place for the Face

2005 December 27
by John Wallbillich

Why can’t we all work in our pajamas?

The New York Times reports on one aspect that separated the recent New York City transit strike from previous ones–the ability of some workers to function remotely from the office.

I expected the article to go on to extol the virtues of telecommuting. Then, in an interesting twist, it veers left and quotes a few members of academia who give two cheers for office face time:

“Even in a world of casual instant-messaging and near-free phone calling,” said Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet governance at Oxford University, “a shout down the hall still matters.”

“In an era when so much of our communication is electronic, the value of a face-to-face meeting has actually intensified,” said Mitchell L. Moss, a professor of urban policy at New York University, “since the phone and e-mail have become routine while a meeting reflects the importance of the person or topic.”

The article underscores the challenges to lawyers who only interact with their clients by phone, fax or email. The good news is that it can be very efficient. The bad news is that it may not always be very effective.

In the in-house environment, this can be challenging for corporate counsel who have clients spread out over the nation or the world. It is particularly helpful to have some personal relationships forged by one-to-one contact at times–like when you are delivering a message on compliance that the key client may not want to hear.

In the law firm environment, it is common for some partners and very common for some associates to have never personally met a long-term client. I feel that if a lawyer ever wants to move up the trust food chain with a client, you have to supplement good service and high value with a personal relationship. With a personal relationship, you are less likely to be thrown into this year’s beauty contest with other commodity-type service providers.

And it may go without saying–visit your client on their home turf. I have heard some lawyers complain that they are “too busy to travel” or “can’t bill for client relations time”. My answers: (a) you will have plenty of time to travel when your clients drift away and (b) you can’t bill for any time when you don’t have a client in the first place.

Tomorrow, a few thoughts on what this may mean for law firms–like where they have their offices and how they build out their space for business.

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