Edge International


The Client Bear Hug

The Client Bear Hug

The Client Bear Hug

Since law firms became professionally managed businesses, the profit-generating flywheel of firms has kicked into higher gear. While correlation ≠ causation, law firm financial performance is exceeding all 12-15 year old expectations of market watchers. With so much financial success in the rearview mirror, how do ambitious firms capture new revenue and greater profits? The answer here of course lies with “the client”- both existing “clients” and future “clients” (aka, prospects!).

Well managed firms that are serious about “the client” predictably support client programming focused on the “3 C’s”- client teams, client service, and client experience.  This managerial triune generates focus/intimacy, satisfaction, and differentiation. Ultimately these three programming levers are intended to help firms actually confer unique (“can’t find elsewhere”) value and build a reputation for conferring unique value. So why do law firms spin their wheels and often execute so poorly with their “client-centric” programs?   

In general, executing on the 3 C’s should be a multi-faceted, comprehensive effort, but I submit that firms should focus on building into their client-centric programming a single element for each program that will drive outsized gains. By concentrating on these few angles of attack firms will be able to marshal sustainable commitment from their lawyers and fulfill their potential.

Client Teams (“CT”)

Problem: CT effectiveness usually flags for two reasons:

  1. Law firms don’t establish a connection between a key business priority of a client and a client decision to hire the firm on new work
  2. Law firms do a really bad job of extending their client conversation to “strange” business functions outside of the client’s law department

Solution: Stop hectoring your clients with “just give us a shot on other legal work . . . you’ll love what you see . . . ” entreaties! We know firms should talk to all functions of the business- not just the law department; however, firms are not speaking to those departments through the “lenses” their audience cares about most. Company departments are duty bound- through their own corporate function- to advance the four animating corporate objectives of:

  • Increasing profits
  • Accelerating growth
  • Enhancing brand
  • Reducing costs

These lenses defined by corporate strategy consulting boutique Innosight (a division of Huron) make up what Innosight calls its “Client Collaboration Matrix.” Innosight has concluded that providers cannot become more broadly relevant to their corporate customers if they do not understand each business function in these four ways. For example, the client product management department may be targeting 2024 as the year it creates a joint venture with a legacy competitor. While your client contacts within the corporate law department may never be aware of this priority, the head of product management will know. Some law departments (and many outside lawyers for that matter!) don’t have an idea what the “product management” function even does, so, of course, those same lawyers won’t naturally stumble into product management-generated legal demand. Build your client profile by gathering intelligence on the business functions through the four key management lenses, and you will gain permission to have more dialogue and find the areas of movement.

Client Service

Problem: With all of the best intentions firms try to map out a set of client service standards that are supported broadly and consistently throughout the firm; e.g., communication responsiveness, client-centric billing protocols, matter-closing client interviews, etc. These modest aspirations evaporate as the press of business causes execution discipline to fade.

Solution: Make adoption and behavior change a strategic priority. Leadership should speak to these sensibilities loudly and often. Leadership should also back up messaging by building into the compensation system rewards for lawyers who help the firm make pivots by modelling the desired behavior change. Managing partners and practice group heads should also expose lawyers to the living case study of a single team implementing real behavior change- make it a “reality tv” show that all lawyers are required to “watch”! Finally, reward and celebrate success- and do so publicly. All of these elements are designed to bring firm lawyers along and persuade them that this behavior change is one of the few incursions on lawyer autonomy upon which leadership will insist.

Client Experience

Problem: Firms put tons of energy into persuading clients and prospects to draw breezy conclusions about how awesome they are . . .  and usually in terms of technical expertise. “We are the best and smartest lawyers around and you would be an idiot to think about working with any other firm because our lawyers are so smart and technically awesome . . . ” This is a bit disrespectful to clients as commercial legal services consumers know other great lawyers with impressive technical skills; prospects are even more keenly aware of commoditized technical expertise as they are using lawyers from another firm. So how does your firm begin to get credit for delivering a better client experience?

Solution (‘m cheating here as I’m providing two angles of attack!):

“Different” = “Better” – great professional services firms (think consultancies, investment banks, executive recruiting firms . . .  and yes, law firms) know the market will give them credit for being “better” if they educate the market about how they are “different.” They define (with specificity!) their “differentness” concretely and do so formally in a culminating writing that effectively relates the “XYZ Way.” Interestingly, they avoid drawing conclusions for the market about their “betterness” and instead focus the market’s attention on the evidence that supports “differentness.” For example, a law firm that incentivizes its partners to catalogue the large capital projects in each department of a client business is a law firm that can be presumed to be more knowledgeable about and intimate with that same client’s business. McKinsey educates corporate C suite members on why the development of a McKinsey “study” is different from the manner in which other consulting firms generate their work product; McKinsey leaves it up to those C suite members to infer McKinsey studies are “better” than competitor deliverables because of this “differentness.” Why can’t law firms catalogue their concrete sources of differentiation in the same manner?

Extracurricular Value = Extraordinary Value – lawyers who are not afraid to make non-legal impact on a business expand their relevance and enhance their differentiation (vis a vis other law firms that stick close to “technical lawyering” roots).  For example, a law firm M&A practice group that helps its buy-side client integrate an acquired business post-closing is conferring value normally delivered by a management consultancy, not a law firm. Stretch your impact into hybrid legal or even non-legal realms, and your client will require you to grow your relationship with it.

So don’t settle for anything less than giving all of your key clients and key prospects a bear hug, and use the “3 C’s” of client centric programming to get the credit your firm deserves!

Mike White

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.