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In this column, we bring the views and opinions from the client’s perspective into focus on issues involving pricing, service, marketing, strategy, differentiation and more. When it comes to relationship management, many firms fail to consider the value client involvement can bring to key business processes such as succession planning or client team transitioning.
Clients expect to partner closely with their outside counsel on all business matters, including any number of unforeseen events that may affect long-standing relationships. At this year’s Marketing Partner Forum, a session titled “The Company We Keep: Mastering Client Collaboration in Relationship Management” examined the underlying business case for inextricable collaboration between law firms and their most valued clients. The panelists included: Christopher Lenhart, Senior Vice President & Deputy General Counsel, US Bank; Lucy Endel Bassli, Assistant General Counsel, Legal Operations & Contracting, Microsoft Corporation; Andy Hinton, Vice President & Chief Compliance Officer, Google Inc.; Katie Potter, Vice President & General Counsel, Five Star Quality Care, Inc.; and Pamela Tracey, Vice President and General Counsel, Osram Sylvania.
Their outside counsel “spend” ran the gamut of a few million to several hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Interestingly, no matter the size or budget of these clients — they were all in agreement: “Collaborate with Your Clients.” The session moderator, Allison Prince, guided a conversation with the panelists, who shared ways law firms do — or could — establish themselves as business partners to deliver more value.
Three Keys to Closer Collaboration with Clients
1. Understanding the Client’s Business. All of the panelists agreed that they place premium value on relationships with lawyers who understand their business. In particular, lawyers should make it a priority to understand both the external marketplace in which clients do business and the nuts and bolts of their internal operations — in other words, how things get done.
There are a number of ways for lawyers to get to know each client’s business, including:
- Monitoring publicly available information on the client. Sign up to receive their press releases, follow them on social media, set up Google alerts, review SEC filings and listen to earnings calls for public companies. Marketing and business development or library and research professionals can provide a valuable service to client teams by curating this information for critical updates and circulating that information to the team.
- Asking for their reading list. Know which publications, newsletters, or blogs clients read to stay abreast of their industry and subscribe to the same.
- Meeting with clients at their place of business. While a significant amount of information on most companies is readily available, there is no substitute for face-to-face conversations with clients about their goals, challenges and priorities — both as individuals and as a company. The added benefit of meeting at the client’s place of business is that you can see the culture in action. Is it quiet or loud? Are workspaces decorated or sterile? Are doors open or closed?
Once lawyers understand the client’s business, the key is to demonstrate it by tailoring advice and offering ways to add value accordingly. Some clients welcome secondees; others see secondments as more valuable to the law firm. Some clients appreciate regular training sessions for CLE credit; others would rather have outside counsel spend off-the-clock time reviewing and standardizing forms.
2. Minding the invoice process. When lawyers see billing as a tedious administrative task, the panelists say they are missing an opportunity to get closer to their clients. Andy Hinton, vice president and chief compliance officer for Google, said that for him, “conversations and conduct around bills are a litmus test of whether the firm is a true business partner.” Katie Potter, vice president and general counsel for Five Star Quality Care, Inc., adds that “firms should view bills as a marketing tool and ask clients what they are looking for on bills at the outset of the relationship.”
Many in-house departments have established detailed billing guidelines for outside counsel to ensure that the many bills they receive are consistent in format and content, but for lawyers who take the big-picture, long-term view of the client relationship, ensuring accuracy of the bills and compliance with clients’ guidelines are just the beginning. They review bills through the lens of the client, considering the following:
- Is the total in line with the client’s expectations? Is it appropriate for the scope of work that was performed?
- Is it clear what work was performed and by whom?
- Have we billed the client for time spent that benefited the firm more than the client? For example, did we have more attendees in meetings or on conference calls than were necessary, or did we introduce a new team member who spent time getting up to speed? If so, should those costs be written off?
With regard to collections, panelist Pamela Tracey, vice president and general counsel of Osram Sylvania, asked that firms must be “be sensitive to clients’ year-end activities as well.” In general, firms would be wise to avoid billing and budget surprises, and especially near a client’s year end.
3. Asking the tough questions — and being prepared to change. It is clear that law firms have considerable room to improve in connection with soliciting feedback — from how and when they do it, to how they respond to the feedback they receive. All of the panelists noted that not all firms ask for feedback — and they should.
While asking for feedback any time is better than never asking, firms that do it well stand apart. This starts with knowing how and when the client prefers to give feedback. Chris Lenhart, senior vice president and deputy general counsel for US Bank, for example, encouraged firms to ask for feedback “in real time rather than out of the blue at periodic lunches.”
Whether it is an annual meeting with multiple participants or a short end-of-matter debrief between the lead partner and the lead client contact, firms must take the time to properly prepare for the conversation. They should reach out to the client to confirm who should be included, the availability of each participant, and the agenda for the meeting.
These firms also make sure that the person conducting the meeting — whether the lead partner on the matter, the relationship partner, the managing partner, firm executive or a consultant — has the information needed to have a productive conversation, from invoices to the client’s goals to industry trends to feedback previously received and the firm’s response.
What happens after the conversation is critically important. Lucy Endel Bassli, assistant general counsel, legal operations, and contracting at Microsoft Corporation, underscored the importance of acting on feedback received, noting that “There is no more heartwarming feeling than being heard.”
There are many ways to collaborate effectively with clients, including the three covered here, none of which requires anything other than time, and all of which should pay dividends in the firm’s client relationships — namely, in lower rates of defection and increased profitability. The key to success is to know how your clients want to collaborate with you, and then doing so earnestly and consistently — and asking for feedback along the way.