When I learned in January that I had won the Lexology 2020 Client Choice Award for client service, I paused to reflect on what it has taken for me to get to this point in my career.
The quotes elicited from clients during the award’s research process included one that resonated with me:
“Jared is very friendly and professional; he knows how to make complex topics easily understandable.”
This underscores my key element of client service, which is the ability to boil down complex issues into practical, understandable solutions. Brad Brown, general counsel of private equity firm 3G Capital agrees:
“Jared gives sound advice. He practices in a complex, highly specialized area and is able to communicate solutions in plain English.”
Not only can this skill help you persuade judges and juries to see your case from the perspective you want, it can also help obtain new clients even from those who were previously adversaries.
The Art of Storytelling
I first learned to love the law when as a kid I would sneak away past my bedtime to watch episodes of L.A. Law on Thursday nights. Prior to on-demand streaming services, broadcast television shows could only succeed if they reached a wide audience and convinced the viewers to come back and watch again at the same time the following week.
Characters needed to use clear language that connected with anyone who happened to have their televisions tuned to NBC. While most attorneys rarely get to celebrate a triumphant Matlock moment in a courtroom, the ability to distill complicated facts into an understandable scene goes a long way toward winning a case.
I often tell myself that if I can’t explain a legal concept in a way that’s easy enough for someone watching re-runs of L.A. Law to understand, I need to work harder at refining my story. Because those audience members are who will be empaneled on the next jury.
While I fell into policyholder-side insurance law by chance, the ability to tell a story has been as important in this practice area as any other. In every insurance coverage dispute, there’s a case within a case—the underlying incident and then the fight over coverage.
How the story is framed is vital for how the allegations or event is compared to the policy language. You often hear the horror stories of a stray comma or typo in a contract that costs a company millions of dollars.
In insurance law, the precise language of each policy can determine whether you’re provided a paid-for defense against allegations of wrongdoing hurled at your company and covered for any resulting damages. Knowing how to avoid pitfalls that aren’t always obvious on the face of the policy and understanding how judges in all 50 states interpret key terms and phrases are vital to success.
Keeping communication open, clear, responsive, and honest helps maintain healthy and loyal client relationships. I work with my colleagues to develop a deep understanding of our clients’ businesses so we know how to meet their needs.
Often in my practice, I will evaluate client insurance portfolios to assess whether their policies use the words necessary to best protect their businesses and industries. One of my proudest accomplishments for a client was recommending management liability coverage during one such portfolio assessment I conducted for a friend who became an in-house attorney.
Although the company’s executives weren’t thrilled to hear they would need to pay more in premiums, I helped persuade them to purchase the insurance and arranged for a broker to get the additional coverage in place. Within 18 months, the company was hit with dozens of lawsuits that were eventually all dismissed on the merits. All its defense costs, which ran into the millions of dollars, were covered. The company, which is still a client, was thrilled and I made my friend look good.
Read the Room
The same combination of practicality and good judgment that helps you succeed in front of judges helps you connect with clients. Having the emotional intelligence to know when the right time is to press forward and when to lay back requires reading the body language of your judge, jury, and adversaries during hearings, trials, and meetings. When I’m putting forth an argument, I keep an eye on them to know when it’s working and when stopping earns more than scoring that extra point with the last word.
Telling an easy to understand story, carefully parsing language, knowing the law, being responsive, and avoiding putting your foot in your mouth can win new clients when you least expect.
Many years ago, I was working on a case opposed by a group of insurance company attorneys. We got along well, but not surprisingly disagreed on everything as I routinely get the hard cases and end up quarreling with opposing counsel.
A decade later a member of that group, who had become deputy general counsel for one of the most prestigious professional services firms in the world, reached out to me for an assessment of her firm’s insurance portfolio. It has turned into a great relationship as we’ve been able to provide them with what I believe is invaluably honest insurance advice.
When your clients and your adversaries notice that you genuinely enjoy telling your clean and crisp story, they enjoy working with us. It becomes infectious.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Jared Zola is a partner in Blank Rome’s policyholder-only insurance recovery practice, based in the firm’s New York office. Zola uses his courtroom and real-world experience to provide clients with practical, business-focused solutions to complex legal issues.