Law Firms Build Business through Client Teams and Interviews

  • May 23, 2014
  • Susan Van Dyke

There’s one thing the most successful lawyers and marketers know for sure: keeping clients and expanding your business with them largely depends on your understanding of their needs.

This is not the one-size-fits-all variety of needs that would simply require you to return client phone calls promptly, but rather a customized approach that gets you up close and personal with client personnel, where you become one of them, and the dividing line between you and the client becomes fuzzy.

To glean this depth of knowledge and understanding of your clients requires two easy-to-find ingredients: asking the right questions to the right person within the client organization, and responding in kind with organized and motivated troops. Simply put, we’re talking about client interviews and client teams.

The formula is simple, but getting liftoff can be a Herculean effort in a firm without strong leadership and motivated lawyers. Done correctly, it will bring you and your firm closer to the client’s inner sanctum, positioning you, as the “trusted advisor,” as legal marketing guru David Maister would say, and place you on the front lines for additional work. In fact, some firms report on annual revenue growth of 8 to 10 per cent where client teams are alive and well.

By my own informal count, about 40 per cent of American firms that have marketing professionals on staff or on contract have at least one client team in place. Most large Canadian firms have at least dipped their toe into this pond, but they might approach them with less science and rigour than American firms that have client teams down to an art form. By all appearances, mid-sized firms in our Canadian market have yet to fully embrace this concept.

Is this an opportunity for a mid-sized regional firm that’s typically nimble?

What is a Client Team?

A client team is a group of cross-disciplined lawyers, support staff and, typically, a marketing professional collectively engaged in drawing out a client’s best interests. Team members have either worked directly with the client, or have expertise that is valuable to the team serving the client.

There is no magic number of individuals for a client team; simply ensure that only the right people are on the team and the number of participants (there’s no room for spectators) doesn’t get too large and unwieldy. The “right” people are those who know the client well, are motivated to service the client and expand its business with the firm, and demonstrate an ongoing and active interest in business development.

The group’s mandate is to share information about the client across practice groups and offices in search of opportunities to improve client service and increase billings. It studies the client’s needs and behaviours and, over time, identifies opportunities for improvement.

The long-term prospect of this strategy can be off-putting, but you can start small with a pilot group and build up to additional teams as success becomes evident. The return on this investment won’t likely come for months and the commitment of time by lawyers and management is usually considerable. Forming and sustaining a client team requires time before it begins to bear fruit.

Another sticky point, but not an insurmountable one, is that successful client teams require a group of lawyers to work as … well … a team – collaborating, sharing, supporting, encouraging – in a profession where independence is sought and even celebrated. So choose your rowing mates carefully and for the right reasons.

The concept of client teams can be too abstract and nebulous for logical, linear-thinking lawyers, making it even tougher to gain critical commitment at the front end. The whole notion of gathering a group of lawyers to discuss client issues can come across as light-weight, and not rooted in enough substance to pay credence to the concept. It’s a leap of faith for some, so start modestly, establish some successes and build momentum across the firm over a generous period of time to give your efforts a fighting chance.

Why Are Client Teams Important?

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, if you don’t know what keeps your clients up at night you can’t address their issues or expect to become their best friend. And if you think you know all your clients’ issues and can’t stand to gain any further intelligence, client interviews – which we’ll get into in just a moment – suggest otherwise.

There are three primary reasons why we’re in the dark:

  • we haven’t had this type of dialogue with our clients;
  • the right questions weren’t asked; or
  • the wrong person was asking and/or the wrong individual in the client organization was asked.

Only with exclusive insight into the client’s issues can you implement marketing or business plans that are based on first-hand knowledge. It is authentic intelligence that will, and should, drive your business strategies.

Well-planned client teams allow you to streamline your efforts, facilitate further communication between lawyers and the client, and institutionalize the client. They also help with associate training, mentoring and recruiting. There are also internal benefits to client teams.

How often has this happened: you discovered two partners from different practice areas were planning an activity with a significant client, and neither knew the other’s activities? Okay, now how would that look to one of your best clients? Two lawyers from the same firm can’t figure out how to collaborate for the benefit of the same client. If it’s not perfectly evident, this does not advance your relationship in the mind of the client, and, actually, in this case, you should be sent back to “Go” and not collect $200.

Now consider missed opportunities for a moment. A long-term real estate client suddenly needs employment advice, and the matter is referred outside the firm because the lawyer doesn’t believe his own firm holds the expertise, or that the firm’s labour and employment group is too busy. Or a request for a proposal for a juicy piece of work sits on a partner’s desk until a day or two before deadline, too late to compose a meaningful or competitive response. I’ve seen partners turn purple recounting these stories.

In the trenches, gathering client information becomes your competitive intelligence. It will enable your firm to identify and address core issues ahead of your competitors better, faster and cheaper than anyone else. No other activity will do this with certainty than in the client team arena.

Further, when you have a client issue staring you in the eye, it sits there in the middle of the room – the proverbial elephant – and there it will stand before someone points to the obvious and the team begins to design a solution or response for the client. Without a client team, some elephants sit quietly in a partner’s office for months, even years, without anyone much noticing or really caring, much less the partner him- or herself. A team environment applies pressure on all members to act on all critical intelligence – the good and the bad.

No one hides when you row together.

Features of Client Teams

Regular communication coupled with a coiled group of individuals ready to spring into action allows for more nimble, practical, tailored services for clients and good positioning for new work. Add that to sharing client intelligence and breaking industry news, and you have a fireproof foundation.

Ensure that accountability is built into the expectations of each team member. A marketing professional should be included on each client team to provide fuel and conduct recognizance as needed.

The concept of teaming in a law firm setting can be a stretch. It’s no coincidence that law firms have practice groups, not teams. Client-focused teams offer the client more value and the firm the opportunity to manage the relationship profitably.

Your success as a lawyer has been the result of individual effort. Much research on lawyers as a group indicates high levels of autonomy, skepticism and urgency. I also note that – again, as a group – lawyers score lower on sociability and resilience compared to other well-educated adults, the likes of which run counter to pulling one’s weight on a team. Of course, there are exceptions to these generalizations, and it’s those people you need to lead or participate in client teams.

Ready to Start?

Just as you would with any significant initiative that will see a considerable investment of firm resources, thorough upfront planning is critical. This is where many fail to get traction, let alone realize the full potential of the project. For a firm of 100 lawyers or fewer, this will be one of your most time-consuming projects for the next year or two until the program is self-sustaining and hits a comfortable momentum.

Part of the initial planning starts with getting senior management visibly involved in the process, outwardly supportive and communicative. They need to understand the process, that realistic resources are required and provide clear internal communication on this project so that others understand where resources are applied – and why.

Find and secure champions among your executive ranks. It is this group that ought to best understand the concept and benefits of client teams and allocate appropriate resources. They must also have a reasonable expectation of a return on the firm’s investment, so regular reporting back to the executive is paramount – both for their benefit, and that of the leader. Just as our parents taught us, always keep your hands on the steering wheel and eyes on the road ahead to avoid a collision.

In many firms, a compensation structure must recognize and reward the efforts of client-team leaders who do most of the heavy lifting. Others on the team could benefit from the same considerations as well. In other firms, compensation isn’t a motivator, so bring your own personal appreciation for your firm’s culture to the planning stage.

Done correctly, client teams are a bomb of work for everyone involved. This should be understood, promoted and appreciated well ahead of the first meeting, and repeated constantly through the whole process (in case anyone wants to try to forget). For some, it all sounds glamorous, and, in theory, everyone thinks it’s something that should involve them. Not the case. The team composition is critical. The personalities and skill levels don’t have to be uniform, but the personal drives and internal wiring do. And everyone must contribute to get the benefit out of the exercise.

The leader is vital. He or she absolutely must inspire, and be perceived by everyone on the team as being trustworthy, supportive and even-handed. It should be someone without a particular personal agenda (or at least one that won’t override the collective agenda) when it comes to the client, and what stands to be gained. He or she must be able to hold feet to the fire if team members aren’t performing, and be able to replace members who aren’t engaged in the ways that are required. In other words, leaders can’t let the team down, nor be seen to tolerate others doing so. A synchronized, high-performing and motivated team is what you’re looking for.

Like I said, this isn’t easy, but let’s get started.

1. Do the prep work – Establish support from your managing partner and executive committee under realistic conditions. The benefits of a client team can take up to a year or more to realize, and each team will require a budget, non-billable lawyer time and management time. For success, it requires your firm’s full support.

2. Troll for a client – Review your top 200 clients as a starting point. Look for good market-growth potential, areas for expansion into other practice areas, areas that increase the wallet or market share of the client, and client organizations where you have multiple contacts. Choose clients that have partners in the firm who get it, who are receptive to the client-team concept, and who will follow through on action items. Without the enthusiastic support of the partner closest to the client, consider a different client.

3. Establish roles and responsibilities – This. Is. Your. Most. Important. Step. By a long shot. Go slow and steady here. Solid leadership, defined roles and imposed accountabilities are key. Scope and clarify the role of the team leaders, lawyers, management and support staff. Discuss these things openly, including accountability issues, and get buy-in from everyone. There is no room for bystanders here, only champions get seats on this bus. Ensure all key people are on the team, or at least invited. Team size can vary from four to 30 people.

4. Get organized – Schedule meetings every six to eight weeks or quarterly, if you expect the momentum will continue between meetings and/or you’re concerned about meeting fatigue. To get the most from participants, send the agenda and related materials to the team a few days prior to the meetings.

5. Take stock – Get a complete picture of the client’s history with the firm. Run data on billings per quarter or year, broken down by practice areas, lawyer and office location. Study the numbers and look for downward or upward trends, cross-selling opportunities, types of matters, etc. Industry news should also be factored into these discussions here and on an ongoing basis.

6. Knowledge sharing – As a group, the client team holds valuable information that can help you serve the client better, but it can also identify where the client is headed and how you can position your firm favourably.

7. Talk to the client – see Client Interviews below.

8. Measure success – Track your efforts by revenue (by individual practice, client or aggregate group), key meetings or cross-selling success. If your managing partner met with 13 major clients last year, that’s worth reporting to the partnership. If key client-team initiatives raised billings, or you increased the number of client contacts within an organization, those are good stories, too.

9. Shout from the rooftops – You and your team have the mettle; now use every internal communication channel to shout your successes.

Stay the course knowing you’re on the right track. With the client team framework in place, let’s insert the client-driven component: the client interview process.

Client Interviews

Getting closer to clients is not only good for firms, it’s also to a client’s advantage. The more a client discloses about their strategies, competitive positioning and long-term planning, the more likely you’ll see around corners.

Consider this scenario: A large, desirable client spreads its legal work among seven different law firms and has done so for several years. This client generates interesting and challenging legal work, it’s leading its industry, it is willing to take measured risks, it pays its bills swiftly and is enjoyable to work with. All the hallmarks of the ideal client.

Recently, one of the seven firms sat down with the general counsel and asked some probing questions about service delivery. The firm learned valuable information concerning changes about to occur in the client organization and the pain the GC was about to experience related to these changes. It also learned how its people can better serve the client by aligning with its procurement department, thereby easing the administrative load on the GC.

This law firm began to implement many of the suggestions mentioned by the client and, a few months later, billings spiked for the first time in several years. Not only did work from this client increase, the firm is receiving a larger share of the client’s work. One or more of the six other firms saw their billings for this client slip, or perhaps there are fewer firms on the client’s ship. Which one do you want to be?

Talk to anyone who interviews clients, and they’ll tell you that clients will hardly ever fail at providing mission-critical information – despite the insistence that the lawyer knows everything the client will say. These discussions help us gain a deeper understanding of our clients and provide us with the tools to deliver the highest level of service. This client-focused discussion will ensure you retain their work, and perhaps even help with securing additional work that may not have otherwise been available to you. Although tempting, this is not a business-development activity.

Client interviews are essential for your most valuable clients. By keeping our best clients close, we improve communication and can respond quickly, showing the firm values the client. Interviews also improve client retention by learning of, and rectifying, potential problems before they jeopardize the relationship, but they also feed your client teams important intelligence about the range of a client’s legal needs.

Not all interview results smell like roses. The devil – or criticism – you know is the devil you can manage. If you don’t ask, then you’re headed for some unpleasant surprises. Knowledge will at least place you in a position to respond.

More broadly, client interviews provide important market intelligence about strategic issues with which your firm is wrestling, such as office locations, emerging or declining practice areas, professional development needs and more. These discussions also open up our understanding of how clients perceive the firm and our competitors.

Develop a wide list of clients that arguably fall within your most-valued client list. Schedule planning sessions with the relationship partners of each client on your list, and look for those that are most willing to see the process through to the end. Your planning session should set goals for the interview, identify questions, include a review of client history and data, and list who will see the final report.

Now you’re ready for the interview. The best feedback will be shared when interviews are conducted in person, one on one, and by someone not directly involved in the daily files of this client. This can be the managing partner, the marketing director, a practice leader, or your best bet, a third party. The interviewee should be a key decision-maker within the client organization, someone who can respond with what has been their experience with your lawyers or firm.

Tell the interviewee that you’ll be taking notes and attributing comments, but that you’ll respect a request to keep certain comments confidential. After the interview, draft a report for those who you agreed will review it, and begin developing a list of action items for the client team. Once discussed and agreement has been reached, put the list into action, call the client with thanks and provide him or her with an update on the actionable items that resulted and, when necessary, comment on things that can’t be addressed and why.

There you have two essential client-driven marketing programs, client teams and interviews, that will build business and protect your best clients.

Best of all, you’ll enjoy seeing how your client responds favourably to your efforts.

Susan Van Dyke, Principal, Van Dyke Marketing & Communications is a law firm marketing consultant based in Vancouver, B.C. She can be reached at 604-876-7769 or