In 2012, management unease and indecision fueled by uncertainty reached an all-time high in companies and law firms. In-house counsel worldwide worried about not meeting demand, while outside lawyers lamented over supply. General counsel say everyone wants a lawyer on hand these days, but with territories and complexity growing as budgets shrink, something’s got to give.
These “do’s” are for firms with international offices, and firms with hopes of serving domestic clients internationally and foreign clients at home.
First, inhabit your client’s world; they want you there. While they’ll proceed with or without you, they’d like to have their preferred firms at their side. Unfortunately many of you are simply not involved enough in their world. Their focus is not just the legal part — it’s how legal advice is sourced and delivered in the company.
Make time to talk with clients and find out exactly what their in-house legal teams are up to. Schedule a meeting at their offices. Explain that you want to make sure your firm understands their priorities and goals as you support them in the coming year, and they’ll likely be happy to talk. After this conversation, figure out a few specific ways that your firm can help. Typically clients don’t know how you can help, so you must be proactive with specific ideas and recommendations.
For example, if their focus is to better manage resources to cover growing demand, you could help them better identify and prioritize risks. Your key practices working in the client’s industry could review their “risk list,” and suggest ones they see other clients facing that may not yet be on their radar. Or you may want to present to them a few ways that your firm has helped other clients that are also working to improve resource management.
Next, build project management tools, including financial accounting ones. Your clients want more certainty. Clients still love what you do for them, but many want to manage smarter so they can use you less. To nourish the relationship, your numbers must show you can deliver on your promises. Most of your firm’s financial and account management exists to give you productivity and profitability info. What’s in it for the client?
Your clients want to see how you will manage to deliver on budget and on time. You need a system that can help your lawyers and their clients track progress and resource use in relation to project scope and estimates. It must connect to financial accounting and billing. Without such a system, progress reporting will be time consuming and cumbersome, your lawyers will have little credibility, and your firm will be at greater risk of getting the alternative fee estimate wrong.
Third, use knowledge management and IT across borders to reinforce client relationships. In multipolar business, relationships between international law firms and corporate clients are inevitably multipersonal. Across the time zones, org structures, legal systems and compliance frameworks, trust is a network constructed with information and project continuity that supports good personal relationships.
The question is: Does your firm’s infrastructure help your lawyers win and perform effectively across borders, making the world flatter so they can more easily bring the firm’s strengths to clients? If you’re not sure, another firm is likely doing it better.
Fourth, demonstrate international know-how. Your firm should provide specific and compelling proof of your knowledge of laws and regulations across the diverse places where your clients are selling, buying, sourcing or investing. It seems so basic, but global clients say their most pressing concern in high-growth markets is: understanding local and regional laws and regulations.
Your lawyers must collaborate across practices and geography to help clients make decisions in situations involving several jurisdictions, or when different laws and regulatory frameworks collide. If you don’t have coverage where the issue is, prepare to credibly show your client how you will get the know-how.
Clients don’t need the statutes — that part is easy. The devil is in the nuances that can help them make wise moves: the legal history, which laws are taken seriously, what has been enforced and how, and which problems most typically arise for organizations like theirs.
Fifth, show off your multicultural strengths. Since many of your clients are worldly, they can quickly discern your lawyers’ and your firm’s ability (or failure) to get things done with a diverse cultural mix of stakeholders, executives, employees and regulators (many of whom have not mastered your language). Clients active in multiple new markets recognize that service styles and practices vary across cultures. They also know that great short- and long-distance service can be as important as technical legal skill in giving valuable counsel.
Service attributes often tilt the scale among competing firms, and multicultural fluency is highly valued — especially when corporate leaders and customers come from all corners of the earth. International firms that win and keep multipolar clients are made up of lawyers that don’t all look and talk alike.
Make sure you effectively present your firm’s multicultural makeup. If you are weak in this area, address it. Do your Chicago lawyers know what a dishdasha is? (Hint: an ankle-length, usually long-sleeved robe commonly worn by businessmen in the Persian Gulf.) If your Russian client asks which of your Houston lawyers speak a second language, would the answer put you at a disadvantage?
Sixth, figure out what you do that’s better or different and emphasize it. It’s important for lawyers to present the firm’s advantages in a way that resonates with the particular client. To do that, you need to understand better what your key clients worry most about, for the issue at hand. Is it meeting a deadline, managing a far-flung legal team, compliance monitoring, reducing costs, cross-border coordination, getting along with a prickly regulator? Only then can you present a differentiated offering that addresses the client’s specific needs.
Finally, make your global brand real by aligning it with how you serve clients. Global law firm branding tends to overemphasize visual identity and underemphasize how specific services and the firm’s resources are discussed with and delivered to clients. Many firms send promotional messages that don’t make sense across cultures and thus mean little to the clients you are trying to win.
Unfortunately, lawyer behavior in offices internationally is often disconnected from the brand message, especially in firms that have recently merged. Too often, the meaning of the brand is not translated in a meaningful way on the ground. Local lawyers and staff thus see it as “material from headquarters.” It gets worse when clients are handed a local brochure with completely different looks and promises. What impression is the client left with?
That’s it: only seven “to do’s” to win global clients better than the other guy. This is a big undertaking, and no one said it would be easy. But when this extraordinary storm finally clears, the sun is going to shine bright for the international law firms that take steps necessary to thrive into the 2020s.
E. Leigh Dance is president and founder of legal services management consultancy ELD International.