Individual Lawyers Attract New Clients, But So Can Law Firms

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By Mike White | Dec 29, 2017

My client shared with me recently the “insight” that “clients hire lawyers, not law firms . . . ” If I had a bitcoin for the number of times I’ve been on the receiving end of that comment . . . well, let’s just say I wouldn’t be writing these articles.

I don’t mean to suggest that the opposite is true – the truth is that many clients do in fact hire individual lawyers and not the law firms for which they work. This of course begs the central question: Why should law firm leaders accept this expectation? When you think about it, it’s pretty disrespectful to your law firm as an institution – “You mean to tell me that after spending many years operating in our marketplace, our law firm can’t claim any credit for attracting business to the firm?” What are law firms doing wrong to support this expectation, and what could they be doing right to connect their entire firm to prospects and clients?

The truth is that even some of the most successful firms are an assemblage of great artists. In the eyes of clients and prospects, firms are only as good as the relationship partners they deal with. But law firms can do much better, and I spend a lot of time with Edge clients helping firms establish their own firmwide connection with prospects and clients. Building this kind of brand equity is a bit of a multi-front war and can be operationally intensive, but described below are a few example strategies firms can undertake:

  1. Unconventional cross-functional teams within law firms create new pathways – for example, use the collective currency that your L&E and ERISA practice groups enjoy with the corporate HR function, and have those practice groups partner with your corporate practice group on structuring HR outsourcing relationships.
  2. Purpose can be promoted – law firms often take for granted the way they go about their business. From onboarding lateral partners, to training younger lawyers, to managing the adoption of technology by lawyers, these are all essential and potentially compelling portions of your firm’s operating model. If your firm is purposeful about the way it goes about these things, then educate the marketplace about this important operational DNA.
  3. Cross-disciplinary wisdom is in short supply – train your lawyers to look for opportunities to bleed into other non-legal business advisory disciplines. For example, your litigators could become front-end risk-assessment and mitigation advisors as much as are AON and Marsh, or your corporate lawyers could get their hands as dirty with post-acquisition business and process integration issues as do your client’s outside management consultants and technology consultants.
  4. Firmwide relationship brokerage awakens a dormant asset – it’s one thing for your lawyers to put prospects and clients in touch with business actors the lawyers themselves know directly – tier I lawyer rainmakers do this all of the time; however, it’s quite another thing for law firms to make use of the important relationships all firm partners enjoy across the firm. Moreover, your firm’s relationship assets extend well beyond your client roster, and include the non-client relationships with business people each partner enjoys.
  5. Process! Process! Process! – process is the mother’s milk of enterprise brand equity. For example, even if the market perceives your people to be better than the human capital at competing peer firms, it is your recruiting and professional development processes that undergird that success. You should exploit this objective asset by educating your lawyers about why your firm’s professional development and recruiting processes are different – and, therefore, better.
  6. The “Playbook” – most great companies – in fact, most great business services companies – are able to define, articulate, and reduce to writing “The XYZ Company Way.” Professionals at these special companies know what is their firm’s secret sauce – the operating elements, methods, processes and incentives that make how they do what they do special, different, and better. These great companies all put together some form of “playbook,” reflecting their secret sauce. I strongly encourage my law firm clients to put together their own playbook, as it usually triggers important cultural and operating advances at the firm. When I help law firms create a playbook, I use it as an opportunity to layer in some important innovation opportunities (technologies, new processes, new fee structures, etc.). Through this process, they also begin to think of what they do as a “whole product” rather than as isolated technical legal output.

Of course, establishing firmwide relevance and brand equity with your market is no trivial endeavor – do not lament if you don’t see your firm becoming the next Cravath, McKinsey, or Goldman Sachs overnight. As dynamic as we like to think the legal market is today, it’s still early days and the bar is low. Firms can gain real competitive advantage by putting together a playbook and educating their sales and delivery resources – their lawyers – about what’s in it. So have at it – make your own playbook!