Building strong relationships: former US Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen speaks in Tokyo

Intellectual Property and Technology News

On September 10, 2010, DLA Piper was privileged to have the Honorable William S. Cohen, former US Secretary of Defense, share his perspectives on the importance of US-Japan relations at the elegant Tokyo Kaikan Union Club. The words printed on a banner hanging behind the lectern defined the event: “Relationship-Driven Legal Services.”

Throughout the evening, every conversation I participated in reinforced this theme – effective legal services are grounded in strong relationships and a deep understanding of our clients. The first person I spoke with was a client who had transferred to an elementary school while living temporarily in Pasadena, California, and he recalled how difficult it was to attend an English school without knowing the English language. One of his colleagues then joked about the reputation that Americans have for lacking foreign language skills. “What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.”

Fundamentally, the evening was all about learning to speak one another’s language. Nearly 20 US lawyers traveled to Japan to enjoy this special event with their clients and to spend time interacting with them in person. As a new partner to the firm, I found the evening to be a powerful illustration of this distinguishing feature of DLA Piper: its commitment to bridging cultural, geographic and linguistic barriers to build strong relationships with its clients. During his opening remarks, Secretary Cohen illustrated this principle with a personal story about the consequences of being misunderstood. During his first trip to Japan as the US Secretary of Defense, Cohen participated in an interview with Japanese reporters while en route. With his comments, Cohen sought to reassure his audience that Japan would remain the primary anchor of security for the US in the Far East. But when he landed, Cohen was confronted with newspaper headlines reading, “Cohen Dashes Hopes of Okinawans.” His comments were intended to emphasize the commitment of the US to security in the region, but instead were misconstrued as a signal that the US was unwilling to close its military base at Okinawa.

Secretary Cohen next emphasized the importance of Japan’s leadership in the world and its relationship with the US. He noted America wants Japan to play a leading political and economic role in the world. To this end, the current Administration has appointed officials who strongly advocate for US-Japan ties. He cited athlete Ichiro Suzuki as an example of competitiveness and excellence, accomplished with humility and grace – ideals that, he observed, are shared by both the people of Japan and the global team at DLA Piper.

As with diplomacy, the desire to increase understanding and strengthen communications penetrates every part of our legal practice. A representative of a telecommunications company spoke of the need for his engineers to be able to communicate directly with attorneys who are both fluent in Japanese and technically trained. He was excited to learn that in DLA Piper’s IPT Group, we have added to our Tokyo and Los Angeles offices several Japanese-speaking IP lawyers and professionals with different technical degrees. By increasing our ability to understand our clients on a technical level, as well as on cultural and linguistic levels, we are enhancing our ability to understand our clients’ needs and to provide the most effective legal services.

Looking around the room, I saw that my experience was being replicated many times over. One of my partners from Los Angeles, Troy Schmelzer, made a personal connection with an in-house lawyer at NEC when they discovered they had both attended the University of Illinois. When I spoke of my son’s upcoming dog-sledding trip to Sweden, another client shared how a dog-sledding trip to Sweden had a positive impact on his teenage daughter. In every corner of the room, personal connections enriched our lives, increased understanding and strengthened relationships.

At DLA Piper, we know that achieving optimal results requires more than smart lawyers, deep experience, and a strong global platform. It begins with relationships.