deepening law firm - client relationshipsFour suggestions for deepening law firm-client relationships

The P3 conference, the annual intersection of pricing, project management, and, practice management went off last week in Chicago with its usual aplomb. It featured reviews of developments on the analytics front as well as discussions of changes (or lack thereof) in marketplace habits. Together it served as a valuable reminder of the fragmented legal market in which we all work. Many big clients now have legal operations czars and seek mastery of their data. Many big law firms have pricing capos and quivers full of alternate approaches. And then there’s everyone else. Depending on the day, they all struggle with discounts, urban legends, recalcitrant parties, and a painful absence of trust. One-sized pricing continues not to fit all. To vary the old torts axiom, law firms must take their clients as they come.

Steven Manton of Debevoise & Plimpton and John Ferko of Miles and Stockbridge led what for me was the most engaging session. Working with a group they formed called the True Value Partnering Institute, they have developed a list of five attributes of lawyer-client value. Those range from creating new measurements of value to finding ways to communicate through the corporate hierarchy news of the value delivered.

During their session, Manton and Ferko divided the room of roughly 150 participants into five groups, each charged with elaborating on one of the five TVP principles. I joined group four which became a discussion of how firms and clients could deepen their relationships and provide more value in the process.

The ideas fell into four categories:

  • Interpersonal
  • Anticipatory
  • Sharing
  • Assessing

And each, of course, had sub-sections.

For interpersonal, the goal was to help the relevant parties from the law firm and the client find a common vision and playbook. Think of it as MTP—meet together, train together, party together. At the start of a complex matter, for example, gathering relevant lawyers, law firm staffers (particularly from pricing and project management teams) and the key clients representatives would increase the likelihood that they, like a well-tuned race car, would be in complete alignment. A similar effort called for inviting clients to train with law firm partners in project management techniques. Not only would this indicate that the firm had embraced LPM, but also it might bring closer the firm and its clients’ work habits. Finally, there was the notion of a victory dinner at the end, one open to more than a small group of cigar-smoking Alpha partners. What benefits might follow? Better communication, less frustration, more work.

The conventional wisdom holds that clients really appreciate lawyers that alert them to future problems and help them find answers. And for once, the CW is correct. This is, of course, difficult work to do, which is why clients like it, and it is generally done on spec, which is why so many firms hesitate before embracing it. But if law firms have the expertise that their websites claim and the will to invest in what is a version of research and development, spotting problems early will deepen their ties with their clients and open new veins of work.

Sharing is an under-appreciated value. During the session, the group offered at least three solid examples. First, sharing law firm technology and other back-office expertise that some legal departments may lack and/or envy. Second, it may mean sharing best practices, including billing, budgeting, and project management techniques. In practice a firm might yield some advantage it held over its customer. But if the goal is to be a trusted partner, a sharing attitude ought to advance that goal. And third, several members of the group praised their secondment programs, in which they shared their talent with their clients. It’s an odd form of sharing: most firms expected the clients to cover some or all of the cost of the loaned associate—and all worried that they’d lose a bright young lawyer to a client. But if the aim is deepening a long-term relationship, their gain is your gain.

Finally, several members of my group lauded the value of assessing the relationships. This could take a variety of forms including face-to-face client interviews by managing partners, firm staff, or independent consultants. The goals here were to gauge the health of the relationship, uncover festering problems, and, deliver, as the first President Bush once memorably put it: “Message: I care.” Several law firm officers around the table recounted how clients reacted with surprise and even a little delight when someone asked their opinion of how things were going. It was the sort of practice that other businesses followed. But in a law firm marketplace that still sometimes neglects to pay attention to its customers, it can serve as a valuable differentiator.

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