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Client Growth: Use a Client’s Vocabulary and not a Lawyer’s Vocabulary

Client Growth: Use a Client’s Vocabulary and not a Lawyer’s Vocabulary

So what am I hearing these days? Yes, all firms are interested in (I dare say captivated by) growth. “We have a remarkable platform . . . I can’t explain why our lateral partner recruitment efforts have fallen short as we have the best culture around- seasoned partners and partners-in-waiting should be clawing their way into our firm . . . .” Without taking up whether the authors of these sentiments are sufficiently self-aware about their firms, there are blind spots implicit in these comments. There are many often ignored growth pathways on which firms should concentrate that don’t have the quicksilver allure associated with a lateral partner with a juicy book of portable business. As opposed to the “like to have” value of lateral recruitment, “organic” growth strategies- executed well- are “gotta have” elements in the law firm growth playbook. All firms express a genuine (albeit often orphaned) intent to become more relevant to their clients by handling more of their legal work. Unfortunately, their execution on this intent is at best conventional and muted. Why do so many firms fall well short of stated goals for existing client growth?

Apply A “Jobs to be Done” Lens When Talking to Your Clients

I’m impressed by the “Jobs to be Done” methods of strategy consulting firm Innosight (division of Huron). Innosight consultants work with Global 1000 companies and in the course of their engagements they learn about the many “jobs” that functional depts and their personnel have to perform. Lawyers are typically really bad at learning about the “jobs to be done” of their clients if the jobs don’t present themselves as narrow legal work. Even curious lawyers are single threaded and tend to dig only for legal gaps rather than business priorities, challenges and opportunities.

On deeper inquiry a law firm relationship partner might hear business clients say:

Their language- and their priorities- are the language and priorities of business and their functional department, and not the language of “law.”

Example: Private Equity Fund Litigation

By way of example, most lawyers descend on private equity funds to sell their transactional and M&A services for logical reasons: private equity funds are in the business of generating transactions- makes total sense, right? How’s that working out? Not very well as the few PE fund principals you’re able to reach are reminded of Charlie Brown’s teacher (“waa waa, waa, waa waa waa . . . “) as you drone on with your oh so compelling pitch as to why this Baker Scholar from HBS is such an idiot for not having used your firm for deal work. 

When you understand well the jobs to be done by this HBS Baker Scholar, less crowded “angles of attack” emerge. PE funds are charged with doing something magical with otherwise underappreciated companies to create “operational alpha” so they can increase company value. Underappreciated companies tend to be messy companies, and some messy companies have messy litigation portfolios that make them even messier. PE fund principals are capital allocators who place and monitor bets on companies; relative to a messy litigation portfolio, PE fund principals care deeply about early case assessment methods- and they want to rely on a structured, process-driven approach to early case assessment, not just a smell test. Whether you’re allocating capital to acquire a company or allocating capital to invest in litigation of said company, few things are more shaming to Harvard Baker Scholars than to be accused of being unthoughtful and informal about capital allocation.  So . . . approach PE fund principals about litigation (and not M&A) and come armed with a defined early case assessment triage process that would make a McKinsey partner proud!

The above is one example of how you can meet PE fund principals where they are. Other examples might be their need to manage the unmanageable with process guardrails, so . . . give them a legal project management process documented in a way that would make a Bain consultant proud. Or give them a documented after-action review process when litigation matters are concluded to fold learnings into their case evaluation process going forward. Lawyers place their faith in “people,” but Harvard Baker Scholars place their faith in “process” and analysis. Your outreach should speak this language.

So meet clients where they are! Require them to tell you their story of their business function in their terms. You might learn a few things that surprisingly put you in a position to confer value.

Mike White

Edge Principal was a practicing attorney for seven years prior to founding and operating two enterprise software companies — Sirius Systems (sold 1997) and MarketingCentral (sold 2007). He owned and managed ClientQuest Consulting, LLC for 10 years serving law firms. He holds an AB in History from Duke University and a JD from Emory University School of Law.