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When you were an associate, your major priorities were probably doing your client work as well as possible and showing the firm’s leadership that you had what it takes to become a partner. Developing new clients for the firm may not have been high on your to-do list. But as a new partner, you have a whole new set of responsibilities. These days, most firms expect every partner, even the neophytes, to take a role in client development. At Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, last fall we had an opportunity to involve all our partners in an unusual client service and development project called “Stop the Clock.” The “stop” had nothing to do with the “leap second” astronomers added as the year 2005 wound down. Rather, the clock that our lawyers stopped last fall during 200 meetings with their most important clients — most of them face to face — was the clock that counts their billable hours. All the time during those meetings was “off the clock.” And the lawyers held time in abeyance because they weren’t practicing law, at least in the way most lawyers practice it. They were listening to their clients and trying to understand the clients’ needs and how they could help their clients more in the future. We called the meetings “client service reviews.” They had four parts. The first one was a simple “thank you” to the client for having turned to Womble Carlyle in the past for legal work. Although we’re a successful corporate law firm, there are many fine firms in the nation, and we wanted to thank our clients for their confidence in us. The second segment started with the question, “Looking back over the past year or so, what could we have done better or differently in order to better serve you?” We wanted to know where the relationship had not worked perfectly and what we could do to fix it. The third portion was future-oriented. “As you look ahead over the next 12 to 18 months, what are some of the key issues you see on the horizon that we should be talking and thinking about to ensure that Womble will be prepared to serve you well?” This question permitted the in-house counsel or business executive to share his or her plans and dreams with our partner and possibly to enlist his or her aid in realizing them. Finally, the fourth part of the client meeting involved a “cross-selling” question: “Have you ever thought about ______? Or has your organization ever discussed/considered ______?” Here firm partners had access to an online list of 40 specialized “products” that Womble Carlyle can provide to its clients, from an equal employment audit to directors’ and officers’ insurance review. They could offer one or more of these products to the client. We could ask, for example, a real estate client whether he knew we could help him with corporate work, or a bankruptcy client whether she was interested in an Occupational Safety and Health Administration review. “We are just applying sound management practices to the law firm environment,” says Steve Bell, Womble Carlyle’s firmwide director of sales and one of the planners of the Stop the Clock program. “Sales and service events are proven business builders in the mainstream world of commerce, but law firms have been slow to pick up on them. Womble Carlyle is simply stepping forward and using tools that work.” SALES UNLEASHED Stop the Clock followed in the footsteps of Womble Carlyle’s fall 2004 program, Sales Unleashed, which was perhaps the first sales contest ever organized by a major U.S. law firm. Bell explains, however, that although it had elements of competition in it, Stop the Clock was not a sales contest. “Actually, you might call it a service contest,” says Bell. “But it did grow out of our past experiences in Womble Carlyle’s sales department — experiences that show you can ignite the natural competitive instinct of lawyers by asking a question such as ‘Which of you can make the most contacts with potential clients in the next 30 days?’ “ Rather than compete to land new clients, partners competed to set up meetings with their existing clients. Without exception, clients were happy to hear from their lawyers when the clock was not running and to discuss the ongoing relationship. Some were simply pleased to be noticed by their attorneys when no crisis loomed and to be asked for their thoughts in an open-ended manner. One of our partners, for example, took a major client, the president of a manufacturing company, to dinner along with the client’s wife. The client told our lawyer that in three years, only one or two other vendors of any sort had ever been “courteous or smart enough” to do that. Another client in the service industry told our partner in one of the meetings that in his experience, Womble Carlyle attorneys provide helpful answers to his questions. The client also said that Womble Carlyle does a good job of notifying him in advance of any unusual costs that the firm may need to incur in his matters. That client noted, however, that in the case of one litigation project, the regional vice president was surprised at how much it was going to cost in legal fees. The Womble Carlyle partner responded by telling the client that our firm would give the client advance notice of any matter that was expected to cost more than $3,000 if the work was being performed for the client’s regional office rather than for headquarters. A third client told our partner that she was impressed that Womble Carlyle attorneys always gave an advance estimate of cost and turnaround time for a project and that the fees had been reasonable. She added that Womble Carlyle attorneys “stay on top of [the client's] industry” to such a degree that they sometimes catch issues in the industry before the client does. FRIENDLY COMPETITION As the Stop the Clock service event unfolded, Womble Carlyle partners could turn to a password-protected firmwide extranet site to follow the success of each of the firm’s nine offices in scheduling and holding client meetings. This fostered the friendly competition among the offices to see which could conduct the most meetings. A typical memo posted on the extranet began, “In the all-important category of Client Service Reviews scheduled, DC is leading the pack, with nearly 30 percent of the planned Client Service Reviews on the calendar. Other offices near this mark include RTP [Research Triangle Park], Greensboro and Atlanta.” The extranet was also used to store crucial information about each client and its industry. When a partner completed a client service review meeting, he or she would write up a summary of the meeting and drop it in the appropriate place in the extranet, making it available to everyone in the firm. The client service reviews were the centerpiece of the Stop the Clock program, but the initiative also had two other facets. One was a mini sales contest that involved an effort to schedule at least 100 meetings with prospective clients. These were companies (mostly in the Southeast United States where Womble Carlyle offices are located) that had been identified by the firm’s marketing department as meeting certain criteria concerning their size and their industry. By the time the contest ended, 104 such meetings had taken place. The third portion of Stop the Clock was one that we called the “FBI” for “Firm Biography Initiative.” This took its lead from a fact about cyberspace: When Google and other search engines process queries from users, they recognize certain search terms and place a Web site higher in the list of results if it employs those terms. So, also under the Stop the Clock banner, we tried to rewrite and expand all of our attorneys’ Web biographies to better use this feature of Internet search engines. The competition among lawyers and offices involved these two aspects as well, as lawyers logged their new-client meetings and their revised biographies on the extranet. When the Stop the Clock initiative ended, for example, five of our offices had revised 89 percent or more of their online biographies. But the essence of Stop the Clock was the client service reviews. “The secret for any firm that wants to focus on client service,” says Bell, “is to motivate its partners to get involved, and there are few better motivators than friendly competition, with charts and bar graphs to show whether you’re ahead of the other guy or gal.” And for a new partner, there are few better ways to understand your firm’s values and strengths and to contribute to its future than to focus some of your time on client service and development.
Jonathan Groner is senior communications counsel at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. He is based in the firm’s Washington, D.C., office.

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