How to Develop Deeper and Stronger Client Relationships

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By Asking Them the Right Questions, Before They Ask You

Law firm leaders routinely complain to me about questions they receive from their clients pertaining to efficiencies in service delivery, questions on pricing and fees, questions regarding use of technology and other things that might improve the value of services delivered. Too often law firms take these questions as an affront or worse, rather than seeing the opportunity to engage in the kind of conversations that would lead to deeper and stronger relationships.

I have just read a monograph authored by Casey Flaherty on behalf of the Association of Corporate Counsel entitled Unless You Ask: A Guide for Law Departments to Get More from External Relationships. Through ‘reverse engineering’ I believe this could be a best practices guide for law firms that want to significantly invest in improved client relationships beyond traditional and copycat methods.

In the Altman Weil 2016 Law Firms in Transition Survey, we asked “Why isn’t your firm doing more to change the way it delivers legal services?” In response, 59.1% of law firm leaders said: “Clients aren’t asking for it.” Well, if clients begin to read Flaherty’s monograph they may well begin “asking” in many and robust ways. As Flaherty explicitly tells general counsel “You should be asking for more and be more specific in what you ask for.” I suggest reading this monograph is a perfect opportunity for law firms to ask the right questions — before your clients do.

Unless You Ask sets forth in great detail how general counsel, or any client really, should begin to query its outside law firms on ways to systematically obtain “value-plus services” from their external providers. It is available here free at: https://www.acc.com/legalresources/resource.cfm?show=1432511.

The monograph is divided into three sections:

  • Value-Plus Services: suggests what questions to ask to get value that extends beyond legal advice. There are terrific, specific, tactical action items that go along with this section.
  • Value Enablement: focuses on how law firms leverage their legal expertise through process improvement and technology. Again, specific advice is given on what questions to ask.
  • Why: encourages law departments to become more sophisticated and robust in working with their outside law firms to improve value enablement. There are interesting and useful forms presented to help deal with skeptics both internal and external.

Keeping Score

In the prefatory section, Keeping Score, Flaherty states “Beating up suppliers [law firms] is not the objective.” Rather he discusses win-win improvement initiatives as an overall objective. He stresses “being reasonable” as a good guiding principle. This all resonates strongly as a way to facilitate a deeper mutual trust and relationship.

Flaherty focuses on “vital conversations.” This is something that I have stressed for many years with respect to pricing, service delivery methodology, value billing and the like. Law firms should not offer a one-way message on what they do and how they do it, but instead have a collaborative conversation with the client.  Many firms claim strength in partnering with clients, but few exhibit clear actions that facilitate / improve such relationships, in my opinion.

Value Plus Services

Flaherty gives a specific listing of value-plus services that law firms could offer quite easily that would result in significant value enhancement. He discusses in detail such things as CLE, support training, secondments, advice hotlines and more. These are all things that any law firm can do and are not reserved only to large, wealthy firms. These would be terrific strategies not only at the firm level but at the practice group level as well.

Value Enablement

At the core of this is a suggestion that outside law firms should be asked how they are measurably improving their delivery of legal services and what evidence and metrics exist to back up those claims.

I particularly like this commentary as it suggests that law firms should do more than just exhibit “puffery” on their websites or in RFP responses regarding the delivery of high-value quality service beyond expertise, Chambers rankings, and the like (yes, I am a not a big believer in all those rankings that only your mother cares about).

For instance Flaherty suggests general counsel say: “We are interested in engaging in structured dialogue about where and how you are improving the delivery of legal services to us.” Any law firm can reflect on that, answer it internally (as it pertains to a specific client) and then present their thoughts before the client asks. This is a model for leading clients rather than being led, which is always a preferred and differentiating market position.

Why

Lawyers on the whole are skeptical — a trait that is often necessary to be effective in law practice. In my many years of working with lawyers, it has become clear that one must always answer ‘the why of it’ when offering recommendations or changes before getting to ‘what’ and ‘how.’ It is an imperative.

In this section Flaherty talks about gaining buy-in and getting people on board. He cautions against trying to achieve perfection, which is impossible as someone will always find shortcomings in initiatives and strategies. He also cautions against assuming that you can address every single problem facing a legal department, as they are multifaceted organizations that have to excel on many different fronts. That is clearly true of a law firm as well.

To help get to the ‘why of it’ and gain buy-in, he sets forth many frequently-raised objections and then in detail addresses how you might deal effectively with them. I suggest that it is easy to turn these comments around and ask similar questions about your law firm or practice group and then use the answers you develop to approach clients.

Summary

In closing this 72-page monograph and 12-page appendix Flaherty says “…the best thing you can do is act.” As with any strategy, that is sound advice. That is why I recommend any lawyer interested in leading their clients to stronger and deeper relationships based around increased value should read Unless You Ask. Frame the questions from the firm’s standpoint; answer them to the degree possible; decide what would be worthwhile through conversations with clients, and then offer specific ways you can improve value. This is the path to differentiation, success and truly robust enduring client relationships.

 


Thomas S. Clay is a principal with management consultancy Altman Weil, Inc.  He advises law firms on strategy, management and leadership.  Contact Mr. Clay at (610) 886-2000 or tsclay@altmanweil.com.  

 

Copyright 2017, Altman Weil, Inc.  All rights reserved. 

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