Almost ten years ago, I attended a general counsel panel about achieving greater collaboration and the clients who participated shared their top takeaways for lawyers and law firms. I’m not sure whether it speaks to the constancy of the legal profession that this advice holds true for today, or we are just still not getting it, but while there are definitely some sophisticated clients needs in the market today, the basics remain the same:
- Don’t treat all of your clients the same – that’s like being a therapist and treating all of your patients the same.
- The GCs were amazed by how infrequently firms will come to them and ask how they are measured internally and what success looks like for them – doing this can differentiate you. (I *still* hear this – do you have a robust client feedback program at your firm? If not, why not? Let 2021 be the year that you implement this.)
- Find un-met needs for your clients – this is a different value proposition than that offered by your competitors.
- Realization rates can go up when you can help the in-house counsel meet their legal spending budget. (We saw this in 2008/2009 post-GFC and we are likely to see if again during and post-COVID)
- Client service should be very personal, tailored to the individual just as much as the institution.
- Firms that know the secret to cost containment in their own firms should be able to help General Counsel apply those principles in their department.
- When a client comes to your firm and you can divine that they’re in need, that’s an opportunity for the firm to embed a partnership.
- There is lots of buzz around AFA’s – but not everyone is positioned to do this. A value relationship is one where you have value to deliver. (While the buzz has died down in many ways, or at least changed, the way firms deliver on value hasn’t. Do you do this with AFAs? How do you show the value of your relationship with your clients?)
- How are you different? There has to be a moment of introspection where you drill down as a firm, practice group, or lawyer and decide who you are. Don’t make the general counsel figure out what your firm’s strengths are and expect them to send work to you. (I do think firms have gotten better at this, but there are still many firms that are afraid to highlight their strengths because they’re afraid that it suggests that other areas are weaknesses, especially if there are strong partners at their firms in these areas. Have strategic conversations around this within the firm and get serious about how and why this may be hurting you and your business).
- General counsel expect that if a firm needs to spend more money to hire more business development and marketing people in order to be a success for them that they should do it. If you’re not going to spend the money, someone else will.
- The GCs said that attorneys who don’t research them in advance are “intellectually lazy” and are easily dismissed. They agreed that it’s because people don’t ask that they don’t know more. There’s no excuse for not researching your client or contact because so much is public. If they’re private, you can follow information about them on Google. Start an RSS feed, read blogs, pull things up on Google to stay up on a client – “it’s painfully easy.”
- Some clients work at companies with multiple nationalities and in multiple countries – the world is their customer. Diversity is another arrow in a firm’s quiver for them. It’s not a standalone objective – it’s evidence of a forward-thinking, smart, cutting-edge legal practice. The talent pool for diversity has never been deeper, so there’s no excuse – this was said 10 years ago, so there will be many clients who will not brook any excuses now.
- Start to think about what your firm will look like 20-30 years from now – businesses have to do this, so firms should be doing it too.
- 85% of the purchasing decisions in the US are made by women. Law firms are not taking this into account – why do they have only 17% of women doing this work? (The statistics have not improved much – according to McKinsey, in 2017, only 19% of equity partners in North America were women, with women of color accounting for only 3%.)
So, apparently, the more things change, the more they stay the same. That can perhaps sound depressing, or it can be an opportunity – in a time where many firms are busy with work, I know firms are also working to retain their current clients, find new ones, and also remain valuable and relevant. These are some of the means to differentiate yourself and show that value. None of them are quick fixes, but they ARE opportunities for your firm to show where it will stake market share in the next few years.
I’ll leave you with some of my favorite quotes from that same session ten years ago:
- “Law firms are notoriously bad at finding out what’s important to us. Figure out what keeps me up at night.”
- “What we do with vendors is that we pit you against one another. We DON’T do that if you’re a partner.”
- “Being good is not a point of differentiation for firms because everyone is smart.”
- “It’s just not acceptable to try to come into a company and not know anything about it. Especially when the world is an open book test.”
- “When you’ve prepared me with intelligence on something going on, I can then use that in my conversation.”
- “Diversity is not a requirement – that would be like saying quality is a requirement.”
- “None of this is brain surgery or closely guarded secrets of in-house lawyers – this is what is happening in the world.”
- “If you want to displace another firm: Jump higher. Run faster. Offer more than others.”
- “You’re able to offer good fee arrangements if you really know yourself.”
- “If you’re charging premium rates, there had better be something premium about you.”
- “The ‘wow’ moments won’t be an outlier in a few years – they will be the norm.”
- “There are times when I need the big guns. But that’s not the majority of my work.”
- “It’s puzzling when a firm says ‘hire us for this, we know this issue’ but they can’t give me an estimate of what it would cost. That’s a red flag.”
2020 was a hard, but not impossible, year. 2021 is going to be about buckling down and doing what we already do better, more efficiently, and in a more valuable way. The number one, easiest way to do that? Listen to your clients first.