Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
A few months after the 2000 merger of Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro and Winthrop, Stimson, Putnam & Roberts, firm managers unveiled a strategic plan that listed four goals for the new entity. In addition to objectives like increasing profitability and strengthening core practices, the plan featured a less traditional item: developing a powerful client-teams program. Pillsbury Winthrop is one of several large firms implementing so-called client teams, a model touted by consultants as the key to client retention and increasing revenues. During the past couple of years, Pillsbury has embraced the team philosophy wholeheartedly and taken significant measures to put it into action. Of course, the team model is not for every firm. In an industry characterized by independent rainmakers, the notions of teamwork and sharing clients are not always welcome. As law firms around the country weigh the ramifications of creating client teams, Pillsbury provides a prime example of a national firm that’s redrawn its internal organization along client lines. “In a way, the client team is the eye and ear of our client into the firm,” says Pillsbury chairwoman Mary Cranston. Pillsbury has 120 teams — ranging in size from a half-dozen attorneys to nearly 100 — devoted to its largest clients. Through regular monthly meetings, each team stays up-to-date on the work the firm is doing for a client and discusses news and developments relating to the client. The teams also all have leaders, giving clients a primary point of contact with the firm. Essentially, the teams are designed to allow Pillsbury to provide clients with a consistent and seamless level of service across geographic and practice lines, firm managers say. And they ensure that someone in the firm is always thinking about the client’s needs. INFRASTRUCTURE NEEDED “When you’re as big as we are, and you have clients that you’re servicing out of offices all around the firm, you can hope that it comes together on a haphazard basis, or you can instill some infrastructure,” says Pillsbury managing partner Marina Park. Examples of this infrastructure include internal Web pages dedicated to each client, as well as e-mail distribution lists. Billing functions are also integrated in the team program, with the firm’s billing staff organized by client. In September, Pillsbury even hired a special client development officer with his own staff to oversee the firmwide client team program. Clients appear to have taken to the teams. It’s increasingly common for client general counsel to sit in on the regular meetings, say Pillsbury attorneys. In fact, when Pillsbury client the Chevron Corp. was in the process of merging with Texaco in 2001, the company dispatched its vice president of strategy to brief the team of Pillsbury lawyers on the energy giant’s direction and vision for the future. Daniel Desjardins, the vice president of legal services for Canada’s Bombardier Inc., a transportation equipment manufacturer, says Pillsbury’s client-team approach has worked well. “The relationship is now closer,” says Desjardins. “Now we’ve got one point of contact, one partner in charge. They’re more proactive.” But despite the success stories, some former partners give the program a mixed report card, overall. The concept is good, says former Pillsbury partner William Devine, but the implementation sometimes fell short. “For certain clients, the team leaders were very effective; for others there were never any meetings. You never heard anything from anybody.” Of the eight to 10 teams that Devine served on, he estimates that at most only three or four lived up to expectations. Pillsbury’s Park says part of the effort involves holding team leaders accountable. Firm management receives regular reports on how often the team leaders have group meetings, and what kind of results the team is achieving. Leaders that are dedicated to the teams get recognition and compensation. Leaders that aren’t effective can be replaced. “It takes a while to build a track record,” Park says. A FAMILIAR CONCEPT While client teams are starting to catch on at law firms, they are well-established in other professional service industries, particularly among accounting and consulting firms. Some accounting firms have taken the concept so far that team members work on-site at some of their biggest clients’ offices. One of the primary forces responsible for importing client teams into the legal realm is William Flannery Jr., a Texas-based consultant and 20-year veteran of IBM, where many of the practices originated. Since founding the WJF Institute some 15 years ago, Flannery says, he’s been retained by more than half of the nation’s 200 top-grossing law firms to implement client teams. The list of D.C. firms includes Crowell & Moring and Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan. The cost of Flannery’s tutelage is not insignificant. At $3,000 to $4,000 per lawyer, the bill to train a large firm’s partner ranks can easily reach $500,000. Flannery, though, says the fact that he’s typically rehired to train a firm’s new crop of partners and lateral hires proves that law firms are seeing a return on their investment. “These are pretty smart people that don’t like to spend money,” he says. “If the first group [of trained lawyers] brings in money, they go, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting. This actually works.’ “ Pillsbury attorneys are vague when it comes to detailing the financial benefits of the program. But some former partners recall periodic updates circulated by firm management that cited healthy increases in billable hours for certain clients. CROSS-SELLING BENEFITS While client teams may be good for customer service, they’re also clearly designed to be good for business. By including attorneys from a broad range of practices, Pillsbury may be able to cross-sell a bigger slice of its services. A new client that comes in the door for a litigation matter, for instance, might have a Pillsbury team that includes intellectual property attorneys and capital markets attorneys. The client isn’t billed for any of these extra team members, but the role of the teams is to figure out ways the client could benefit from the firm’s full range of “solutions.” For example, while Canada’s Bombardier initially retained Pillsbury for IP work, the company now taps Pillsbury for litigation and is considering using the firm for corporate work, Desjardins says. And the team approach gives Pillsbury a firmer grip on clients, making individual partner defections less likely to result in lost business. “There’s no question this does institutionalize clients,” Cranston acknowledges. That’s one reason she believes that other law firms have not moved as aggressively to adopt the client-team approach. Indeed, for some rainmakers, the team system can be perceived as an unwelcome threat to personal books of business. But while some partners within a firm might not want to play along, Flannery says this usually won’t jeopardize that firm’s overall client team project. Occasionally, however, a firm’s culture is so dominated by rainmakers that client teams will not work. Brought in to do training at one firm, Flannery says, he was ordered not to come back by a firm’s managing partner and senior rainmaker. Today, Flannery says, he can detect firms with such cultures on the first sales call and will often decline to work with them. Interestingly, though, even firms with deep-rooted rainmaker cultures, like Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, say they’re keen on the team idea. “I don’t think in this day and age any one individual can service the different complexities of a client. So having a team approach is important,” says Wilson partner John Roos. In Pillsbury’s case, the transition to client teams was aided by the firm’s historical base of institutional clients. The firm’s partner compensation system was also structured to reward rainmakers for teamwork and team results. And positive client feedback has helped to convince partners that the teams are worthwhile. While Park acknowledges that a minority of partners may not have been completely enamored with the idea initially, she believes that support for the program among the ranks has grown substantially. “You let them see that the partners who are buying into it and expanding client relationships are being rewarded for that. And then they start to see that maybe there is something about it that makes sense.” This article was distributed by the American Lawyer Media News Service. Alexei Oreskovic is a staff writer at San Francisco’s The Recorder.

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

Reprints & Licensing
Mentioned in a Law.com story?

License our industry-leading legal content to extend your thought leadership and build your brand.


ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.