Reflections on Foreign Practice

Posted: May 21st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Law Practice in Different Countries | No Comments »

I started out my legal career practicing in South Africa. Many clients whom I’ve had the privilege to serve have asked me whether practice in South Africa differs from US practice. The answer is a resounding “YES”; in just about every conceivable facet!

Here are some of my observations, for those who might be interested.

South African practice – when I was involved in it from the mid-eighties to mid-nineties – could best be described as “old-school” and genteel for the most part, traits generally associated with Mother England. Lawyers were highly respected, and clients used them because they believed they got good counsel (and I think they generally did). The emphasis was always on document preparation; lawyers were discouraged from having input into the business deliberations underlying deals; this was a “Business Decision” and something we always avoided. Clients paid us, usually on time. The law itself was simpler, and tended toward categorizing transactions. If you couldn’t find a category, you couldn’t do the deal, simple as that.

Then there was the marketing and practice development piece. In South Africa, if a client or potential client asked if you had experience doing X, and you did, you would reply coyly to the effect that “I’ve done a little of X, yes” which meant you were the leading expert. The only other possible response was “No”.

Switch to Washington circa 1998. To my shock and awe, clients (a) wanted me to make multiple “Business Decisions” (that’s why they were consulting me right?), (b) weren’t particularly interested in smoking cessation electronic cigarette what my document looked like or what it said (“it takes care of the deal, right? Where do I sign?”), (c) came up with all manner of creative solutions that I simply couldn’t categorize, but didn’t need to since there was adequate consideration (d) and when I gave the standard reply about whether I had done X before, I was surprised when they said they look for someone with more experience.

Probably the most sobering and difficult piece for me personally has been the fact that it is extremely difficult to differentiate one’s services as a business lawyer in the US based on document quality. In South Africa, documentation and craftsmanship were everything, and differentiated a good firm from a bad one. That was really all you had to do well to market yourself.

Not so in the US and in my early years in Washington, I remember being constantly incensed when competitors with better marketing skills would outbid me on a project with sub-standard documents. But to their credit, they got the job done and the client was generally happy. I learned from that. I still pay the same meticulous attention to detail, but I pay far more attention to customer satisfaction.

Is any system better to work in? My take on it is that you can be more creative in how you practice in the US, which makes it fun, but the competition and the public’s (to me incomprehensible) lack of respect for the profession make it a lot tougher to be successful.

Leave a Reply