Mark Stevens: Law360 Rainmaker

Fenwick & West partner Mark Stevens was profiled by Law360 as part of its Rainmaker Q&A series with “leaders at top law firms.”

Q: What skill was most important for you in becoming a rainmaker?
The most important skill for me has been empathizing with clients: understanding where they're coming from and what's most important to them. That includes doing what makes sense for the client every step of the way, not what makes sense legally or is best for the lawyers involved or for the firm. No one benefits in the long run if the client doesn't get what it needs. Years ago, I found myself cringing when I heard another lawyer giving advice that made legal sense, but clearly wasn't useful to the client. I told myself I'd never do that.

Q: How do you prepare a pitch for a potential new client?
This is fairly straightforward: it's all about being prepared. I research what I can about their business. If I don't know it well, I won't know what's important to them. I also learn what I can about the people involved. For example, if I find out that the would-be client is a third-time entrepreneur and knows many of the same people I do, that's a different pitch than the one I'll make if the key players are doing everything for the first time. In the latter case, I'll go into much greater detail. For example, I'll explain how the tech and venture ecosystem works — the interactions among the various parties — in addition to laying out how I can help.

A pitch meeting with a client is very similar to what a really good journalist does during an interview. When you ask questions as a journalist, you're trying to make the other person feel as though you're having a normal conversation, which you are. But you're processing as well as listening, so you can extract a deluge of information. That's an important skill to develop. It's one more way to learn — on the fly — about the company and its needs. When you're able to integrate the information in real time, you can focus the conversation on what's important and top-of-mind for them, not what the legal issues are that you can help with. Clients want to work with someone who understands — and is enthusiastic about — what they're building.

Q: Share an example of a time when landing a client was especially difficult, and how you handled it.
I knew the U.S. executive for a leading company in the mobile gaming industry, and he was determined that I be the lawyer representing the company. He tried to make that happen by introducing me to the CEO, CFO and the board, but got no traction. All of these people were busy. And while I made myself available, I didn't push it. I continued to meet with the executive, though, and kept up with what was happening with the company. Still, it was frustrating.

A year later, the company faced a complex situation, but they were unhappy with the lawyer they were working with. The CEO called me for a second opinion several times over the course of a week. Because I was already up to speed on what his business was, I was able to be helpful during those calls. At the end of that week, the company switched counsel to Fenwick. Since then, they've been one of my best clients.

The takeaway here is that sometimes it just isn't the right time to land a particular client. They need to be in a position where a change makes sense, and they need to have their attention on counsel. Unlike what we lawyers think, the choice of counsel is not always the number one concern to a company. In this case, when it did become important, being patient paid off.

Q: What should aspiring rainmakers focus on when beginning their law careers?
Excellent legal skills are essential, but they're just the start. You have to develop those and you have to develop an understanding of the client's viewpoint. Don't just say you'll work on your legal skills now, and that sometime in the future you'll start thinking about what it's like to be a businessperson-lawyer. It's about developing both skills at once.

It's important to note that you don't need business or technical training to understand a client’s business; all you need is to be curious. Show a true interest and ask good questions, to the point where you can interact intelligently with the client and offer useful, informed decisions.

Q: What’s the most challenging aspect of remaining a rainmaker?
I've in been in the business ecosystem for a long time, and am older and more experienced than some — many things are easier now than they were when I was younger. I'm also a white male in a white male-dominated society. This means that some attorneys out there inevitably face greater obstacles than I do, so it would be unfair for me to complain.

That said, I do face two challenges that I'm sure most other busy lawyers also face. One is keeping my energy level up. Whenever a client or one of my team members calls me, I need to be “on”: it's important to let them know that I'm not too busy, tired or distracted. The other is balancing the demands of my practice and the demands of business development. Both are constants!

The interview is also available through the Law360 website (subscription required).