Which sounds like more fun: going to a ballgame or a seminar on project management processes? A golf outing or a roundtable discussion on cybersecurity?
Law firms are reporting more success in cementing client relationships with the latter activities.
“Firms are much more strategic about what they’re doing than random acts of entertainment,” said Laura Meherg, a partner at Wicker Park Group, which advises law firms on maintaining client relationships.
These events are only one aspect of law firms’ business plans that start with understanding what clients need to be successful, often through collecting client feedback by firm personnel or outside consultants.
Kristen Leis, who heads marketing and business development at Charlotte-based Parker Poe, said the law firm’s clients told her in interviews they were too busy with family and other commitments to go to Carolina Panthers’ football games with their outside lawyers.
Many in-house lawyers said they instead felt pressure to better understand the business processes employed by their company clients. Moreover, the in-house lawyers said they needed outside counsel to understand business processes as well, such as budgeting and scheduling, she said.
So last year Parker Poe gathered about 25 clients and 25 firm lawyers for a two-day workshop on the Legal Lean Sigma philosophy. Seated at eight tables in Charlotte, the attendees worked together to solve problems to learn how to become more efficient and provide higher quality, more predictable and more successful services.
“I still have clients calling asking us to do it again,” Leis said.
She credits the success of her client interviews with focusing not on what the firm can do better—because that’s about the firm—but on what the client needs to succeed. “How do you get a bonus at the end of the year?” is a question she has asked clients.
Meherg from Wicker Park—who trained Leis on conducting client interviews—said firms are becoming more comfortable with collecting client feedback, be it electronically, on the phone or in person.
The information gleaned “is a conversation starter,” she added, to understand client expectations.
Aric Press, a partner in PP&C Consulting, another law firm client relationship adviser, said client interviews are vital. (Press is a former top editor at the Daily Report’s parent company, ALM.)
“The most important person to do it is the head of the firm,” Press added.
Realizing that top people have limited time, he said a senior lawyer or administrator—or a consultant—should do the client interviews. He said the partner managing the relationship with the client should not perform the interview because clients are sometimes reluctant to bring up negative topics with them.
A good relationship partner will already know 80 percent of what a client has to say, Press said. But he said interviews send “a message that your outside firm cares about what’s on your mind.”
“This remains,” Press added, “a relationship business.”
Bess Hinson, a senior associate at Morris, Manning & Martin who chairs the firm’s cybersecurity and privacy practice, found a way to pursue two passions that helped her build relationships with existing clients, potential new clients and colleagues in the technology field.
Hinson last year started the Atlanta Women in Cybersecurity Roundtable, a quarterly luncheon hosted by her firm. She said she was motivated to establish the group because statistics show that only 1 out of every 10 professionals in cybersecurity are women. When the first group met last fall, she said, one attendee let out a big sigh and said, “It’s so great to be around all of these women.”
She said her guests include chief privacy officers, chief information security officers and general counsels who oversee privacy issues within their companies. Some are clients, while others aren’t, and they come from Atlanta-based companies including AT&T, SunTrust, Coca-Cola, Porsche North America, UPS, Turner Broadcasting, McKesson Corp. and Cox Enterprises.
They share strategies, such as—in a sign of the times—“How to deliver bad news” and how to manage other cybersecurity challenges.
Hinson said that, although no one shares proprietary information, everyone signs a confidentiality agreement so that anything discussed in the room stays in the room.
Hinson said the meetings “help me think through legal advice” for clients,”
“I draw from their experiences,” she said. “It helps me be invested with these people.”
Terry Brantley, managing partner of Swift, Currie, McGhee & Hiers, said he generally leaves relationship partners in charge of maintaining the firm’s bonds with clients and understanding what the clients need, what they want to focus on and even how they like to communicate.
But he said the firm has used an outside consultant to interview clients, which was helpful “to make sure you’re getting honest feedback.”
Brantley said the firm often offers clients “lunch and learn” meetings at a client’s office, where lawyers share knowledge about a particular subject. But he said one of the most meaningful events has occurred when a client held a “reverse lunch and learn.” In that case, an insurance client said it wanted to educate the law firm about aspects of the business.
“It was fantastic,” said Brantley. “When you have a true relationship, it works both ways.”