Getting the relationship right with a new client can often be difficult. The difficulty of getting it right is accentuated with a major new client, with a large team of lawyers working with multiple stakeholders on the client-side, often layered through the client’s internal hierarchy.
This short article explores a tried and tested way to increase the likelihood of a smooth-running client relationship – through a facilitated ‘Norming’ Workshop, aimed at getting the relationship going on the right footing, or at strengthening an existing relationship.
In 2009, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer (Freshfields) was appointed as the official law firm for the London 2012 Olympics, having won the role in a tender process organised by the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG). The firm provided an agreed quantum of services for free as part of a sponsorship agreement. Several Freshfields lawyers were provided on secondment to LOCOG and in addition Freshfields provided legal advice as an external counsel to LOCOG’s specialised team of lawyers.
This was an important and high profile piece of work and both Freshfields and LOCOG were anxious to get the relationship right. Early on in the relationship, LOCOG’s General Counsel decided with the Freshfields’ relationship partner to bring the two teams of lawyers together in a workshop facilitated by external consultants (of which I was one), so as to give the relationship the best chance of functioning at an optimal level.
It is well-established that new teams – including groups brought together as ‘one’ team – go through a staged process often described as forming, storming, norming and performing. Not all teams make it to the third or fourth stages of this process. Some get stuck in ‘storming’ mode, i.e. dysfunctionality. This is obviously disastrous for optimal working outcomes.
Another challenge of bringing two groups together is the risk of those groups operating as silos – when this is the case each group operates as an autonomous silo or bubble and members of the other group are viewed as ‘out’ group members rather than members of the ‘in’ group or team. This is similarly poor for optimal working outcomes.
Why a facilitated ‘Norming’ Workshop?
The main advantages to your firm are:
- Each group gets to know each other from the start of the relationship. Or if the relationship is already underway, the two groups get to know each other better.
- The workshop can be used to create a better understanding of respective personalities and working styles. For example a simple exercise can be done profiling the styles of group members and a basic mapping of communication preferences and working styles can be developed.
- Any particular preferences (likes or dislikes) can be worked through before the relationship gets going – or, if the relationship is underway, likes or dislikes can be surfaced and discussed. Do team members prefer to communicate primarily by email? At what point do they prefer verbal communication, either face-to-face or by video or phone? How does the client like to receive advice? – short bullet points, lengthier advice with a short summary etc.
- If the relationship has already been running for a while, are there any particular bugbears? Is either side doing something that bothers the other side? This can apply either way – the law firm can be doing something that annoys the client or vice-versa. It is better that bugbears are named and dealt with than allowed to fester.
- The workshop is also an opportunity for those at different layers in the law firm and client hierarchies to get to know each other. These informal links can prove invaluable in nurturing a truly strong relationship between law firm and client.
In the case of the Freshfields / LOCOG engagement, it was particularly important to get the relationship right, with the looming deadline of the 2012 Olympic Games – and very limited room to correct if anything went wrong along the way.
Some additional – and less obvious – advantages:
- Offering a ‘Norming’ Workshop or introductory session can be a real differentiator that adds value to the law firm pitch when trying to win a mandate or panel appointment as part of a competitive tendering process. A new relationship usually kicks off without this type of process, which from experience is valuable to, and valued by, the client.
- The ‘Norming’ Workshop is an opportunity for the law firm to learn additional ways in which it can add value to the client and thereby improve the relationship. The pitch meeting might have provided a glimpse into additional ways to add value, but a facilitated session provides a fuller opportunity to get to know the client better, in a constructive, facilitated, environment.
Getting the ‘Norming’ Workshop right requires careful planning and coordination between the law firm and its client:
- The external consultant will be able to guide the law firm – usually the relevant relationship partner – as to how to position the proposed ‘Norming’ Workshop in the most positive and constructive way.
- It is also important that the workshop is positioned constructively internally within the law firm – some members of the team may be concerned that the workshop will expose them or – if the relationship is already underway – surface negative feedback and in fact undermine the relationship. With the right internal positioning these concerns can easily be allayed.
- It is important to establish good dialogue between key representatives from the law firm and the client so that the design of the workshop meets the respective needs of each side. For example in a recent ‘Norming Workshop’ the law firm proposed a session around personality profiling but the external client (a government department) felt that it was too early in the relationship to do this and that the exercise might backfire. The client wanted to spend more of the workshop on wellbeing issues, as a gentler way to launch the relationship. Feedback from key stakeholders post-workshop was that this was received well by each of the respective teams.
- The design of the workshop may need to go through several iterations. Some issues to consider are:
- Length of workshop – half a day or longer? Is this a deep dive or a very gentle introduction of the respective teams to each other
- Content of workshop – substantive content? Team profiling / individual profiling? Balance between large group ‘plenary’ discussion, ‘learning’, discussion in small groups, discussion in pairs.
- Speakers? – is it helpful to have input from an external speaker, e.g. someone who is an inspirational role model? At a recent workshop the law firm wanted to profile its commitment to diversity and brought in a para-athlete sponsored by the firm who was able to talk about overcoming adversity, resilience and the importance of maintaining focus on challenging goals.
The key to all of the above is to assemble a small working team to plan the workshop – this should consist of the external consultant or consultants and key stakeholders from both law firm and client (usually no more than one or two from each).
For further information or to discuss the issues in this article, please contact Jonathan Middleburgh at Middleburgh@edge-international.com or on +44(0)7973 836343