Lunch with Simon Potter & Kim Nguyen: Client relations
Want to keep your clients? Keep them amused.
The mentor: Simon Potter, Partner, McCarthy Tétrault, Montreal Group
Background: Prominent Montreal lawyer Potter joined the litigation group
in 2004. During a career that spans four decades, he has built a reputation as an exceptional trial lawyer in cases involving trade, competition and constitutional issues.
The mentee: Kim Nguyen, Associate, McCarthy Tétrault.
Background: Nguyen is known as a baby McT: she joined McCarthy Tétrault as a student in 2009; articled there; and became an associate in 2011. Her practice is focused on civil and commercial litigation.
Barely five minutes after Simon Potter takes his seat at a table near the back of La Medusa, the restaurant’s co-owner comes over to greet him. “The chef wants to make you a special dish,” Joe D’Adderio tells Potter. “Medaglione, stuffed with truffle mushroom. And some fish – a nice mediterranean bass. You’re gonna love it.” Potter has been a regular at the Italian eatery in Montreal’s busy downtown core since it opened in 1996. “Very good,” he says. “Don’t even have to think about it.”
“Longevity counts for a lot,” the senior litigator says by way of explanation for how he came to be known as a rainmaker, though he could easily be describing his relationship with the three brothers who run La Medusa. “When you’ve been there for a long time, you end up having a phone that rings from time to time.”
Potter’s understated description of his role at McCarthy Tétrault belies his no-nonsense approach to acquiring and keeping clients. Over the course of his 41-year career, he has fought cases in virtually every federal and Québec court, not to mention countless regulatory boards and tribunals. Keeping clients around, he tells his junior associate, Kim Nguyen, often comes down to keeping them amused.
“If the client has a choice between going through a very difficult time with dry, boring, unlively people or with people who actually find the absurdity in things, who can laugh and are jumping in with ideas left and right, well, the choice is easy,” he says. “Fun is a tool of competition.”
For younger lawyers, the idea of making litigation fun can seem counterintuitive, like learning to roller skate on an ice rink. “You don’t see the fun at the beginning because you’re so focused on your legal arguments, your facts, your documents,” Nguyen says. “It’s when I go to court that I realize it’s also about the connection, the dialogue you’re having with the judge. It’s not only presenting your case, it’s about the discussion.”
Keeping clients happy is only half the battle. The other half is getting them in the first place. And on that front, Potter laments the unintended consequences of large law firms becoming increasingly self-sufficient. In-house education programs, seminars and social events have made it so lawyers barely have to leave the office anymore.
“I think visibility is the key thing for young people,” Potter says. “It’s tempting for young lawyers to think, ‘I get everything here, I don’t even have to keep up my old contacts. I’m going to be fed.’ But it’s very important to encourage young people to overcome that and get out there.”
It’s a lesson Nguyen has taken to heart, despite the challenges of doing so with a young family at home. “I don’t expect to get a mandate or a big file from attending events in the legal community, but it’s all about building, nurturing your relationships with colleagues,” she says. “I’m growing up with the colleagues who are at my level on the client’ teams. If they trust the work I’m doing, well, they’ll think about me the next time.”
Potter cites a recent phone call from a client asking him to get involved in what he describes as “a new, emerging softwood lumber dispute” as an example, even though he’s been “out of trade law” for the past few years. “There’s a lingering element to the image that you get out there. People remember.” But it doesn’t happen overnight. “You can’t suddenly have the image and be the go-to person in just one year. It takes four, five, six, seven years of going to conferences, giving seminars, writing.”
So while longevity may count for a lot, visibility and a dash of fun may be the keys to making it stick.