Fenwick & West partner Cynthia Hess 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?
A: Listening, for sure. Hearing what a client is asking for and being able to respond accordingly to their real needs. Operating on autopilot doesn't work well. For example, when I'm first talking to a client who is switching law firms and coming to Fenwick, I want to know why they feel their needs weren't being addressed at the other firm. Is it that they weren't paid enough attention, or did they not receive crisp, practical advice? Different clients have different pain points, and I want to know what they are.
Earlier this year, an important client called to say that it was critical to him that he'd be getting my attention and not working with more junior attorneys, so we discussed when it would be appropriate to involve junior attorneys and paralegals. His confidence was restored after that conversation, and I was better attuned to his needs. When I know he needs my attention, I make sure to reply to his emails right away, even just to say that I'm in a meeting and will get back to him later in the day. It seems obvious, but sometimes conversations like these, in which I'm able to reinforce my commitment to being as responsive as possible, are among the most important ones I have with clients.
I also try to elicit from clients a high-level explanation of their goals. If they have difficulty, I work with them to figure it out, explaining that they will get the most from my expertise if I have a clear idea of what they need.
Understanding the dynamics of each transaction is also key for me: How would my client benefit (or not)? How does the money flow? What are the relationships among the parties involved? Having a solid grasp of the big picture has helped me get clients — and hold on to them.
Q: How do you prepare a pitch for a potential new client?
A: When I was a new partner at another firm, I met with a business development coach. One bit of guidance in particular resonated with me, and I've followed it ever since. That is to talk to potential clients before doing a formal pitch, taking a deep dive to determine what their needs are.
For example, learning what kinds of attorneys they would want on my team, and what their hot buttons and pain points are. In the process, I'm signaling to the company that they won't be getting a cookie-cutter pitch. I'm also giving them an idea of what it would be like to work with me. Of course, I also do the usual due diligence: finding out as much as I can about the company and what it does, and researching other companies in the same space.
Q: Share an example of a time when landing a client was especially difficult, and how you handled it.
A: Not long ago, I helped a client sell a company he had founded. Unfortunately, he wasn't in a position to sell it for a profit. In fact, the investors got pennies on the dollars they invested. I needed to be quite candid with him as to what was doable and what was not. Some of our phone calls were tense, and I didn't expect to work with him again. I was pleasantly surprised when he called a few months later, asking me to help him start another company.
As we sat down to discuss the new work, I confessed that I hadn't expected to hear from him, given how direct I'd had to be during the sale transaction. His response was great: He said that we'd already been in the trenches together, and that if he had to go through a bad time like that one again, he'd want to go through it with me. Most clients want their lawyer to be straight with them.
Another instance says as much about the culture at Fenwick as it does about me. In that situation, it wasn't my client that was difficult; rather, the difficulty involved a variety of serious challenges to its business that my client faced suddenly. I'm mostly a startup lawyer, and I know what I don't know, so I immediately called several of my colleagues of many years, including some of the most senior partners at the firm. We took an all-hands-on-deck approach to helping the company. I saw myself as the primary care doctor who has a client with a life-threatening illness; it was my duty to bring in the specialists and make sure my client got the best possible representation.
Q: What should aspiring rainmakers focus on when beginning their law careers?
A: Actually, I would tell a young attorney not to even think about becoming a rainmaker. You don't want to get out in front of your skis. I've seen lawyers bring in business before they're ready, before their skills are developed enough. They end up trying to mask what they don't know, and it usually ends badly.
Instead, I would focus on building relationships. For example, I would urge young lawyers to get to know clients and in-house counsel. Spend time with them if you can, and show that you're not just punching the clock. It's important to do the same, of course, with other lawyers at your firm — and not just in your own practice group.
As a beginning lawyer, you're much more likely to become successful if you observe how other attorneys handle a variety of situations, in good times and bad, and if you're then able to incorporate successful approaches you've observed into your own repertoire. In the end, no one lawyers by themselves. If you don't build strong relationships throughout your career, it's unlikely that you'll end up a rainmaker, or simply have a strong book of business.
Q: What’s the most challenging aspect of remaining a rainmaker?
A: A key challenge for me is helping my clients — both startups and multinationals — manage growth and move in new directions. In fact, accomplishing that is more important than bringing clients in the door.
To name just a few, the growth-related issues my clients face include hiring and holding on to the very best talent, remaining agile when it comes to strategy and budgeting, considering big-picture strategy while staying on top of the day-to-day operating challenges brought on by rapid growth (for example, managing cash flow), and keeping up with regulatory developments as well as market and financing trends.
While it's true that working through these issues requires a fair amount of juggling, it's a privilege to do it. It's also extremely gratifying to see my clients — some of the most innovative companies anywhere — revolutionize the way people interact with the world.